3:00 AM ETThe Preview by Andrew Fidel Fernando in GalleFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprintBig Picture
It’s Galle. It’s going to spin. Given it is Rangana Herath’s final Test and England are the opposition, it might spin like crazy. Unfortunately, it also looks as if it’s going to rain, at least for parts of the Test. The weather forecast is for thunderstorms, generally in the afternoons. That doesn’t mean we won’t get a result, of course. None of the last 21 Tests in Sri Lanka have ended in draws. Many of those had had to contend with the weather as well.
England cruised through the limited-overs series, but in Tests, where Sri Lanka have been a more robust opposition, particularly at home, there are many more questions that the visitors will have to answer. Is Rory Burns, essentially Alastair Cook’s replacement at the top of the order, ready for a challenge as great as defusing some of the best spinners in the world, on a pitch that is one of the most treacherous?
In fact, save for Joe Root and Ben Stokes, who are reputed to be decent players of spin, England’s entire top order seems a little frail;. Keaton Jennings hit 112 on debut in Mumbai, then 54 in Chennai a week later, but those matches were two years ago, and there has not been an encouraging volume of runs since then. Jos Buttler averages 23.5 in Asia, even if it is possible he is a much improved batsman in these conditions since he last toured the continent. The injury to Jonny Bairstow has further weakened England – though it is a huge opportunity for Ben Foakes, who is in line for a Test debut. None of the top eight, in any case, have ever played a Test in Sri Lanka before.
The hosts’ approach over the past few years has been fairly straightforward on the difficult pitches at home. Attack the spinners and attempt to unsettle them early. Score your runs quickly, before the inevitable good ball gets you out. A score of 300 here could be worth as many as 450 on most other tracks in the world, particularly given the tenacity with which Sri Lanka’s two senior spinners – Herath and Dilruwan Perera – defend scores at this venue.
As always, the first-innings score is crucial – if England can get themselves to a creditable score, they not only set themselves up nicely in this Test, they gain the belief that they can crack these conditions going into Kandy and Colombo. South Africa, the last team on these shores in July, began badly, skidding to 126 in their first outing, and proceeded to crash even more dramatically in subsequent innings – their batsmen unable to lift themselves out of a psychological rut. England’s technique is sure to be tested, but if Sri Lanka play well, so will their mettle.
Sri Lanka WWWDL (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Lost in all the buzz about Herath, has been the return of Angelo Mathews to the Sri Lanka team. Feelings had clearly been hurt during his axing from the limited-overs sides, as you would expect. The relationship with coach Chandika Hathurusingha, in particular, had soured. But perhaps the message has been received. He is back looking noticeably leaner. He has also begun to bowl in the nets, even if it is unlikely he will do so in this series. A fit, performing Mathews at No. 5 turns this half-decent Sri Lanka top order into a pretty good one. But it remains to be seen whether the bruises sustained following the Asia Cup debacle have healed enough for him to be able to focus on his cricket.
Adil Rashid has had a strange year. Having announced he would not play red-ball cricket for Yorkshire, he found himself picked for the home Tests against India, but was called upon in short, irregular bursts throughout that series. Now, suddenly, he is required to lead England’s attack in what is perhaps the spin-bowling capital of the world. Is he equipped to deliver in the long format? His numbers in Asia are not particularly encouraging. He took 23 wickets across a five-match Test series in India, but his average was a mediocre 37.43, and he also went at 3.7 an over. In the UAE, where the Kookaburra ball is used – just as in Sri Lanka – and where pitches are more like the ones found on the island, Rashid’s figures are even worse – though he did claim a second-innings five-for on debut in Abu Dhabi, having conceded a chastening 0 for 163 first-time out. It is possible that his confidence from excellent performances in the limited-overs series will flow into his Test game, but that is not a given. Plenty of foreign spinners have prospered in Sri Lanka in ODIs. Not many have had the same success in Tests.
There are a lot of unknowns with this England XI. Will Moeen Ali bat at No. 3 or lower down the order? Burns is almost certain to get a Test debut, and Foakes is likely to join him with Jos Buttler playing as a specialist batsman, meaning that Joe Denly may have to wait for his chance later in the series. They are likely to play three spinners as well.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Keaton Jennings, 3 Moeen Ali, 4 Joe Root (capt.), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler, 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Jack Leach, 11 James Anderson
Sri Lanka will almost certainly play three spinners themselves. Dhananjaya de Silva might take the lower-order spot over Roshen Silva, who has been a little out of form in recent months. Opener Kaushal Silva will return to the XI for the first time in over a year. Lahiru Kumara, who had been in the 16-man squad for the series, has been dropped for disciplinary reasons. Dushmantha Chameera comes in as his replacement.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Kaushal Silva, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (capt.) 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 7 Dhananjaya de Silva, 8 Dilruwan Perera, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Akila Dananjaya, 11 Rangana Herath
Pitch and conditions
The pitch looks dry to start with and, given the wind blowing across the ground, is likely to dry further very quickly over the first three days. Rain is forecast for the first two days in particular, and there are likely to be interruptions.
Stats and trivia
No other nation has ever hosted 21 result Tests consecutively. The last draw in Sri Lanka was against South Africa at Colombo in July 2014.
Rashid’s recent Test form is much better than his overall numbers. He has taken 10 wickets at 30.9 this year.
Mathews’ Test form in recent years has been modest. He averages 28.59 across 37 innings since the start of 2016.
These teams have played four matches in Galle. Sri Lanka have won two of those, and two – in 2003, and 2007 – have been draws.Quotes
“We’ve got a very balanced squad with plenty of different options. Whichever XI we go with, we’re going to be blessed with that. From that point of view I feel we’ll be very well prepared for whatever surface is thrown at us.” England captain Joe Root
“When you look at the Test records in the last couple of years, both teams are equal. When you’re playing in Sri Lanka, definitely the spinners will come into play. Maybe because of that, we are a little ahead of England.” Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal