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England set for Trial by Spin

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England’s test cricketers eventually won a close-fought series with South Africa that gave Joe Root’s team a much-needed boost in the World Test Championship. There were many positives from the initial leg of the tour including debut international centuries for Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope while England’s seam attack was supplemented in the final two matches by the blistering pace of Mark Wood.

 

A 3-1 series win was no less than England deserved but as the test team moves on through a busy year, the next tour will provide very different challenges. Sri Lanka are the opponents for two tests in March but can England come through their trial by spin or will the hosts prevail on those turning wickets?

 

Predictions

 

The tourists will have to make do without key pacemen Jofra Archer and Mark Wood who are both ruled out through injury. Opening batsman Rory Burns also remains on the sidelines but England are expected to come through the tests with little concern.

 

If we look at the early betting, cricket markets show England as clear favourites and recent success in Sri Lanka is driving down the visitors’ price. As we’ve seen, however, there are some key players missing from the touring party so can the hosts capitalise?

 

Comfortable Outings

 

It’s less than 18 months since England were last in Sri Lanka and the tour ended in a comfortable series win for the visitors. Traditionally, this has been a difficult place to come and get a result but since the Sri Lankans lost some giants of the game, they haven’t been quite the same force in World Cricket.

 

To be fair to the host side, losing four world class players at similar times was always going to lead to a rebuilding process. Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan would have walked into any test side during their pomp but several years on, the current squad is still struggling against the bigger teams. England duly completed a 3-0 series whitewash in November 2018, and many are expecting a similar outcome.

 

Key Men

 

When England travel to Sri Lanka it’s all about the bowling attacks on either side and, more specifically, the spinners. When Joe Root’s men came here at the end of 2018, James Anderson and Stuart Broad were mere bystanders as the slow men accepted the bulk of the responsibility for taking 20 wickets.

 

The obvious point to consider here is a complete change in personnel. Back in 2018, England played three spinners in Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Jack Leach but only the latter was retained by the selectors for the upcoming tour.

 

Leach may well make the starting XI but his selection will be based on experience rather than current form. The amiable left hander became a national hero for his batting in 2019 and, as his bowling figures fell away, illness in South Africa handed an opportunity to his Somerset colleague Dom Bess. A five-for in the third test at Port Elizabeth means that Bess will surely be an automatic pick for Sri Lanka, leaving Leach and the untried Matthew Parkinson to battle for one more spinner’s berth.

 

England will presumably then use Joe Root and possibly Joe Denly to provide spinning back up after both men claimed key wickets in South Africa.

 

No Concerns

 

At the start of that South African tour, England’s concerns revolved around a suspect batting line up that had produced a number of embarrassing collapses. Suddenly, with Sibley and Pope scoring maiden tons and Rory Burns to come back into the side this summer, the alarms are subsiding.

 

Joe Denly also battled at times but the Kent man is under pressure from Keaton Jennings who returns to the squad. Jennings is a specialist player of spin who made 146 on the previous Sri Lankan tour and he could slot back in for this mini-series.

 

Opponents Sri Lanka are far from a dominant force but they will provide challenges. All rounder Angelo Mathews shows signs of returning to his best but the spin attack that was once so potent is likely to struggle against a resurgent England side. The tourists should come through but the one question mark is over that new-look attack and whether Bess and Leach / Parkinson can emulate the successes of 2018.

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