Thoughts on the First Test from Fernando and Gardner… beginning with Jayasuriya’s Delusions

I. Andrew Fidel Fernando:“Daunting challenge for Sri Lanka to repeat 2014 heist,” at  ESPN Cricinfo

In the heady first half of 2014, Sri Lanka floated into England in the afterglow of Asia Cup and World T20 triumphs, won the limited-overs leg, then made James Anderson weep at the end of the Tests. In the doleful first half of 2014, nursing gashes from the tri-format flagellation in Australia, England sought to launch a “new era”. This promptly splintered and ran aground on Angelo Mathews‘ rock-of-Gibraltar forward defence.Still, even in England’s bleakest hours, they had their defenders. Not so long after they had lost to Netherlands in the World T20, a noisy ex-player was happy to announce that Sri Lanka’s bowling was merely a “glorified county attack”. This year, it was a former Sri Lankan cricketer who made the wild predictions. The team he selects has the “best attack in the world” Sanath Jayasuriya, said. In two years, even the delusion, it would seem, has switched feet.

Since that 2014 series, Anderson has reclaimed his snarl so completely that presently he seems more likely to produce swear words from his tear ducts, than tears. And it is England that came within a Brathwaite bat-breadth of claiming the recent World T20. England who – under the instruction of Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace, and briefly Mahela Jayawardene, all of whom have been in charge of Sri Lanka in some way – have opened with spin, batted with adventure, widened their horizons.

While they bristled with purpose, Sri Lanka have moped through some of their grimmest months this decade. The bowling has generally been heartening. The fielding and batting has not. At times, the catching has brought to mind slapstick acts at children’s birthday parties. At others the top order have played like balloon animals. In Tests, good match positions have been routinely traded in for substantial losses. That dynamism that used to make them greater than the sum of their parts has slipped, because occasionally the think-tank seemed to have taken leave of some of their parts – namely, their brains.

And so it is that while Mathews’ stony batting and Rangana Herath‘s lovable left-arm spin provide substance to this squad, many of their hopes lie with young players yet to fully bloom at the top level. How well will Kusal Mendis, who is so fresh from school the mental check between instinct and flowing cover drive has not yet taken hold, manage war-worn bowlers like Anderson and Stuart Broad? How will Dushmantha Chameera, tall and slim as a coconut tree, fare with Alastair Cook staring him down?

There are also the repeat visitors to England. Dinesh Chandimal caught fire on his first trip to England, fizzled in his second, and now has recently rediscovered his spark. Mathews will look to him to liven things up at No. 4 if the top order gets stuck.

Opener Dimuth Karunaratne had made flashy starts and got out when substantial innings beckoned in 2014. Now he seems to have the opposite dilemma, in that there are not many innings of note between towering Test scores. His partner Kaushal Silva hit twin fifties at Lord’s last time, but has since gone through a worrying dip in form, and a more worrying blow to the head. His innings usually have more leaves than a Banyan tree, though, so it is hoped he could be the trunk around whom the top order drops its roots in early-summer England.

The hosts are smuggling inexperience as well, with batsman James Vince and seamer Jake Ball in contention for Test debuts. But even aside from Cook and Anderson – their most prolific Test batsman and bowler ever – there is a reassuring steadiness to their likely XI. Steven Finn, on a continued redemptive trajectory, is likely to produce the steepling bounce that so often troubles Asian sides in England. Broad’s average against Sri Lanka of 46.16 is his worst against any side, but his thundering spells can decide a series in a session.

And then there is quite possibly England’s best player, Joe Root, who is set to begin the series at his home ground, and finish it at Lord’s, where runs stream more lavishly out of him even than abuse. The 2014 Sri Lanka side had absorbed many Root taunts through the series, then spat it all back at him on the decisive final day of that series. In a strange way, it might do Sri Lanka good if Root is mouthy again. They have in the past closed ranks and coaxed the best from themselves when a siege is on against them.

The man who played the last shot in 2014, fired the first one this time around. Anderson has suggested his side were in the running for a 3-0 triumph. Sadly, for Sri Lanka, a whitewash does not seem a complete impossibility. That has been their fate in the last two away series.

They have said in the past months and years that they are in transition. In this series, it is up to Sri Lanka to prove they are heading for happier times, and not just more months and years of “transition”.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando


II. Alan Gardner: A new Test of resolve after T20 hiatus,” … ESPN Cricinfo//

‘Sri Lanka a dangerous opponent’ – Broad

Big Picture: After a three-month break, in which the upstart T20 has held court, Test cricket is back. We hope you have a good appetite. In late February, Brendon McCullum signed off his international career by slamming the fastest-ever Test century in Christchurch. What does Headingley, one of England’s most-storied grounds, have in store? There was an almighty tale to be told the last time Sri Lanka were in Yorkshire, England’s cricketing heartland but not one which bestows easy favours on the home team. Angelo Mathews’ masterful, career-best 160 helped set up a dramatic victory, spearheaded by Dhammika Prasad’s 5 for 50 and sealed from the penultimate ball of a pulsating match. Those Headingley heroics secured Sri Lanka’s first (multi-Test) series win in England, as well as a clean sweep in all three formats on their 2014 tour.

As Sri Lanka’s players cavorted, and James Anderson shed a tear, England were left contemplating another fresh low. Much has changed since then. Alastair Cook, his face set grimly against the wind and rain, slowly turned around the listing vessel under his command, heaving the ship’s wheel with all his might. Two years on and England are sailing with the breeze at their backs again, negotiating some choppy waters to record significant wins over Australia and South Africa in their last three series. Cook himself is about to crest 10,000 Test runs, uncharted territory for an Englishman.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be knocked off course again, however. Headingley was again the scene of an England defeat last summer, as New Zealand squared the two-match series, and it is the venue where they have had least success over recent years. The decision to retain Alex Hales and Nick Compton in the top three, after poor and indifferent returns respectively in South Africa, gives Sri Lanka a couple of obvious pressure points to probe, while there will also be a debutant in the top five, due to James Taylor’s forced retirement.

But Sri Lanka have their own areas of concern and it would be a truly remarkable achievement if they were to repeat the feats of 2014. The squad has not changed much but Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene will only contribute from the sidelines – they tallied 516 runs in two Tests last time – while only Mathews and Rangana Herath have more than 50 caps. Prasad has been ruled out of the first Test, and Shaminda Eranga has not played in 18 months; Dushmantha Chameera’s pace will catch the eye but he has to learn to catch the edge in conditions of which he has little knowledge.

England will hope that this all amounts to a perfect storm for them. Carlos Brathwaite rained on their World T20 parade but international cricket rarely stops moving and series wins over Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer would mean they hold all nine Test trophies – the first team to do so since Australia in 2008 and giving further heft to their status as a coming team under Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace. As if to further chill the Sri Lankans, the weather in Leeds has become decidedly mucky. Test rewards don’t come easily and it is time for these two teams to get their hands dirty again.

Alastair Cook and Angelo Mathews pose with the Investec trophy © Getty Images

Form guide

England: LWDWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LLWWL

In the spotlight: Stepping in to the spot sadly vacated by Taylor is the elegant, unflappable Hampshire batsman James Vince. Marked out as a future international since being compared to Michael Vaughan as an 18-year-old, Vince’s cover drive ought to be classified as an addictive substance but he has learned that there are times when he must overcome his urges to succeed, as a gutsy hundred against Yorkshire demonstrated last month. That innings won over the selectors and he will be back on the same ground looking to prove himself the man to shore up England’s slightly mercurial batting order at No. 5.

Big Foot would have a job filling Sangakkara’s boots but it seems like that is just what Kusal Mendis will be asked to do. Experiments with Upul Tharanga, Udara Jayasundera and Lahiru Thirimanne at No. 3 have all been short-lived and Mendis, who made his debut there last year before opening the batting in New Zealand, has had an encouraging start to the tour, with fifties against Essex and Leicestershire. Sangakkara has said he believes the 21-year-old former Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year will be “a very good player as the years go by”; Mathews must be hoping that the future isn’t all that far off.

Teams news:Alastair Cook confirmed his XI on Wednesday and there are just two changes to the England team that was roundly thumped in Centurion at the end of the South Africa series, with Vince making his Test introduction and Steven Finn fit to reclaim his place from Chris Woakes. That means no debut for Nottinghamshire’s highly rated seamer Jake Ball.

England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Nick Compton, 4 Joe Root, 5 James Vince, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Steven Finn, 11 James Anderson

The major question marks for Sri Lanka hover over No. 7 and the make-up of the pace attack. Kaushal Silva will return to opener, after missing the New Zealand tour, while Dinesh Chandimal looks likely to keep the gloves and bat four. Dasun Shanaka’s century against Leicestershire, and his ability to bowl seam-up, may win him a Test debut in the allrounder’s spot; Prasad’s injury reduces their bowling options, with the four other seamers in the party having played once each so far, to underwhelming effect.

Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Kaushal Silva, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Milinda Siriwardana, 7 Dasun Shanaka, 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Dushmantha Chameera, 10 Shaminda Eranga, 11 Suranga Lakmal/Nuwan Pradeep

Pitch and conditions:Headingley is likely to be as capricious as ever over the next few days, with rain showers set to break up play while providing longed-for cloud cover for the bowlers. With the sun out, the pitch should be good to bat on, as Root and Bairstow proved during their record-breaking 372-stand during the last Championship match held there.

Stats and trivia

  • Alastair Cook needs 36 runs to become the 12th player – and first Englishman – to 10,000 in Tests. If he gets there in this Test, he will be the youngest to do so.
  • England’s only victory in their last six Tests at Headingley came in 2013 against New Zealand. They have lost four and drawn one.
  • Rangana Herath needs three wickets to become the third Sri Lankan to 300 in Tests.
  • If Sri Lanka’s last tour had been played using the proposed multiformat points system, they would have won 14-6 (with four points for a Test win, two for a draw, two for a limited-overs win).

Quotes:“Sri Lanka have got a history of punching above their weight and are really, really competitive, no matter what’s gone before.”
Alastair Cook suggests he won’t be taking the opposition lightly

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

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Filed under Angelo Mathews, child of empire, English cricket, performance, player selections, Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka Cricket

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