Nervous? Didn’t think so. Excited? Not particularly. The first test of the summer gets under way at Headlingley tomorrow. Most of us expect it to be a pretty one-sided affair, with England’s established players cashing in big time and those who have struggled in test cricket thus far boosting their stats and perhaps flattering to deceive.
I don’t want to seem disrespectful to Sri Lanka, who have some very admirable cricketers, but that’s just the way most England fans see it. The online betting tells a similar story. If England don’t win, and win very handsomely, something’s seriously amiss.
This bottom line is that Sri Lanka are in poor form, generally struggled in the warm-up games, and are there for the taking. They’ve got severe batting issues, a popgun bowling attack, and conditions will be against them. If they struggled against that Beard bloke from Essex what’s going to happen when they run into Jimmy Anderson and his stubble?
My personal feeling is that Sri Lanka’s confidence (or lack of it) will be key. If England start well the visitors could be in big trouble. Their problems could escalate very quickly. Their team-sheet lacks just about everything a touring side in England needs: experience, stability, a good pace attack, and a proven ability to play the swinging ball.
Although the visitors surprised a few people by winning in 2014, the context is completely different this time. Back then England were the ones feeling their way. We’d just suffered an Ashes whitewash, the captain’s batting technique was all over the place, and off-field political shenanigans were proving a massive distraction. This time England have just returned from South Africa with the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy safely tucked away in their back pocket. The team is on a high.
That’s not to say that Sri Lanka’s cause is hopeless though. Far from it. Although I expect England to romp home easily, there are certainly weaknesses for the guests to exploit. Although we bat deep, and our pace attack looks extremely solid, our top and middle-orders are far from the finished article.
The top three looks particularly vulnerable. Alex Hales has looked skittish, technically poor and out of his depth in his test career to date. Although he might turn things around against this limited Sri Lanka attack (if nerves don’t get the better of him), here’s a player Sri Lanka can target.
And of course, if Hales goes early, it will bring the hapless Nick Compton to the wicket. As everyone knows, Compton has been in terrible form for Middlesex and he probably doesn’t deserve his place. One suspects he’s on borrowed time. Once again, England will rely heavily on Cook and Root. Otherwise it will be left to the debutant, James Vince, to rescue the team.
However, even if England do endure some uncomfortable moments, and get bowled out relatively cheaply by the promising Dushmantha Chameera, I expect our bowlers to get us out of trouble – particularly up north in May. Sri Lanka’s opening pair of Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silver average just 35 and 32 in test cricket respectively. Things aren’t going to get any easier in English conditions against experienced new ball bowlers like Broad and Anderson.
Once England get their teeth into Sri Lanka’s batting, much will rest on the excellent Angelo Mathews. Dinesh Chandimal is an exciting player to watch, as is young Kusal Mendis by all reports, but one senses their natural exuberance could get them into trouble if cloud cover gathers over Headingley. One suspects Sri Lanka will have to bat out of their skins, and England will need to bowl poorly, for the visitors to score competitive totals.
Personally I hope Sri Lanka do put up a fight. There’s nothing worse than watching a one-sided affair that makes a mockery of test cricket. The last thing we need is a repeat of the pathetic Australia versus West Indies series during the winter.
Test cricket needs touring teams, especially the poorer nations, to start performing better away from home. I’m not sure what anybody will gain if England rack up 500-3 every time – which will lead to a false sense of security before the bigger challenges ahead – and then Sri Lanka capitulate meekly.
Sure Sky will wax-lyrical about England’s ‘brave young team’ of essentially middle-aged and experienced cricketers, but veteran supporters won’t be fooled. A victory against weak opposition at home in May won’t mean much when England visit India this winter and then Australia the following year. That’s what we’re building towards.
Let’s hope we’ve been properly tested, and battle-hardened, before then.