England v Sri Lanka: Preview

The last time a Sri Lankan touring side arrived in England, back in the summer of 2002, they were a side awash with ripening talent and bolstered by an experienced backbone of players in their prime. On the first day of the opening Test at Lord’s, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene lashed centuries, and though the series was eventually lost, the side continued to blossom over the next few years. England meanwhile were beginning to feel the effect of the Fletcher/Hussain partnership, though the heights of 2004 and 2005 were still yet to be truly envisaged.

Come 2006, and much has changed…

The Players

England: Andrew Flintoff (captain), Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Geraint Jones (wk), Monty Panesar, Liam Plunkett, Matthew Hoggard, Sajid Mahmood, Ian Bell, Jon Lewis.

Sri Lanka: Mahela Jayawardene (captain), Upul Tharanga, Michael Vandort, Jehan Mubarak, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Thilan Samaraweera, Tillekaratne Dilshan, Chamara Kapugedera, Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), Farveez Maharoof, Chaminda Vaas, Malinga Bandara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Nuwan Zoysa, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara.

Despite the early signs of promise and a brief spell as a side that could genuinely rank themselves as the third best Test nation in the world, the Sri Lankan paradise has soon turned stormy. The spine of the World Cup winning team of 1996 has gradually hobbled to a standstill, and the oasis which flowed with talent has all but dried up. Atapattu sits on the sidelines injured, his future unsure. Jayawardene remains the pinnacle of the middle order, though with the added burden of the captaincy. Kumar Sangakkara is the one other truly world-class batsman, and he too has the job of keeping wicket to go with the pressures of being an international number three batsman. Michael Vandort and Jehan Mubarak had long been seen as the eventual replacements for the likes of Atapattu, Sanath Jayasuriya and Hasan Tillkaratne, but both have stagnated as lazy big fish in the putrid pool of Sri Lankan domestic cricket – Vandort registered a pair recently against England A. It is likely that the pair will contest the final opener’s berth, with Upul Tharanga almost a certainty at the top of the order.

The rest of the batsmen – a blend of youth (Tharanga, Chamara Kapugedera) sprinkled with a handful of relative experience (Tillekaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera) – will have to fire should the tourists hope to come home with a series victory this summer. In the shorter form of the game, Dilshan does offer something to the side in all disciplines: handy runs, useful off-spin, and a lethal arm from backward point.

Then, off course, we have the enigma of Muttiah Muralitharan. This could be his last full tour of England, and once again he will hope to have the opposition batsmen groping at thin air. His doosra proved the undoing of England in Sri Lanka in 2004, and given the weakness of his side’s batting, wickets are a necessity. Supporting him as always is Chaminda Vaas, the canny left-arm swing bowler who will seamlessly blend into the English conditions, and a battery of relatively unproven medium-pacers. Keep an eye out for Lasith Malinga though, whose late swing and slingy action could pose an unusual problem for the home batsmen.

The hosts are now, in some eyes, the best Test nation in the world, and it is they who are blessed with a wealth of resources with bat and ball, not to mention the planet’s best all-rounder and a host of other crowd-pullers who will ensure packed houses this summer. Injuries have already taken their toll on the side, with captain Michael Vaughan, spinner Ashley Giles and pace bowlers Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and James Anderson all currently sidelined.

The batting remains as strong as ever however, and all of the top order will be looking to catch the selectors’ eyes ahead of the winter’s Ashes series in Australia. A depleted bowling attack appears to have at first sight have made the Sri Lankan batsmen’s task easier, but the replacements have been in ominous form: Jon Lewis took nine wickets for England A last week, while Sajid Mahmood has made a bright start to the season at Lancashire. It will be interesting how young Monty Panesar contends with the green pitches and the presence of the world’s greatest ever off-spinner in the opposition ranks.

Cricket Web’s Players To Watch

England – Marcus Trescothick
After a winter cut short by his early return from India, opening batsman Trescothick will be keen to rattle the advertising hoardings again this summer and run himself into some form ahead of the winter’s Ashes series in Australia. His battle with Chaminda Vaas and the remaining Sri Lankan seamers will set the tone for the series, and should be smother Muralitharan, England will be on course for victory.

Sri Lanka – Chaminda Vaas
Quite possibly the best swing bowler in the subcontinent, Vaas’ experience will be invaluable to make early inroads with the new ball, and then provide an option of reverse swing late on in the innings. With precious little seam resources available for the tourists Vaas must support Muralitharan to ensure any chance of Sri Lankan success.

The outcome of the series will effectively come down to the form of Muralitharan. Should he rip through England at Lord’s the hosts will find themselves with plenty of questions but few answers, although support from a flimsy batting lineup will be crucial. England will be looking to consolidate after a mercurial winter, but if the young talent shines brightly under overcast skies, a series victory is well within their grasp.

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