Updated: Jan 21
After a long and uncertain break, England return to the Test arena for a two-Test series against Sri Lanka, with both matches taking place in Galle.
Despite several off-field concerns and restrictions taking place due to the Covid-19 pandemic, England enjoyed a crowd less but successful 2020 summer, beating the West Indies 2-1 and Pakistan 1-0 and showed plenty of signs that they are progressing, even with the odd inconsistent display, such as the first Test loss to the Windies.
During the summer, we saw the emergence of Zak Crawley, who made 417 runs from six innings, including a magnificent 267 in the final Test against Pakistan. Dom Sibley also established his place at the top of the order with a century against the Windies and other steady scores, while Jos Buttler refound some much-needed form with 416 runs at an average of 52.
Stuart Broad had an outstanding summer with 29 wickets at just 13.4 apiece, while Jimmy Anderson, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jofra Archer, and Dom Bess also enjoyed good patches. However, England are without Stokes, Pope, Archer and Rory Burns for this tour and the two-Test series provides an opportunity for other fringe players to stake their claim, going forward.
As expected, there have been concerns about potential Covid-19 cases, with Moeen Ali testing positive early on meaning he having to self-isolate and miss the first Test, while Chris Woakes has only recently come out of self-isolation after being in close contact. A bonus, however, is that no other players tested positive for Covid-19 after the latest round of results.
Sri Lanka are coming off the back of a 2-0 series defeat in South Africa, that saw plenty of fight but also a plethora of injuries to key players which badly affected their chances after a positive start to the tour. Concerns remain around the fitness of certain players and the first Test could see them play an under-strength side after fielding several squad players in the second match at Johannesburg.
Rob Rush (@robrush99)
There is no doubt that this England touring party is significantly weakened by the non-involvement of Stokes, Burns, and Archer. Stokes is the glue that holds this team together - a feisty all-rounder who can go through the gears with his batting and who makes things happen every time he’s thrown the ball. Simply put, he is England’s talisman, and England will be hoping that they don't feel his loss too much on this tour.
Archer’s omission is also admirably covered in the express department, with Mark Wood and Olly Stone covering the express pace department comfortably and thus showing off the strength in depth in that group.
The recall of Bairstow and Ali is an approach of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. England have better options in the spin department that they should be focusing on and aiding their development, rather than picking an out of form and over the hill Ali. Regarding Bairstow, his recall is partly down to his past form in SL and the fact Burns is unavailable for selection, so he shouldn't be in the side past this series.
With the likes of Stokes and Pope missing in the middle order, Dan Lawrence has a great chance to stake a claim for the India tour and beyond. The openers pick themselves, with Sibley and Crawley both enjoying a successful first 18 months in the Test arena. Both of them have secured their spots for the foreseeable future, with Crawley looking likely to slide back down to 3 once Burns returns.
The start of 2021 signals a make-or-break year for the skipper, Joe Root. With 17 Test matches in 2021, finishing off with the Ashes down under later this year/early 2022, fans are expecting big things from England’s leader. Some have claimed that if he doesn’t return from Australia with the urn, his tenure as captain could be over. It has been well documented that Root’s average since becoming captain has dropped, and while he has 49 Test fifties, his conversion rate is poor, converting only 17 of those half-centuries into hundreds.
The gloves have also been a topic of heated discussion, with Ben Foakes not looking likely to play any Tests in Sri Lanka, leaving Jos Buttler as the incumbent behind the stumps. Given Foakes’ far superior keeping ability than Buttler’s, many fans were expecting a batting lineup of Buttler at 6, with Foakes taking the gloves and batting at 7. Alas, that does not look likely, with Ed Smith stating he would be very surprised if Buttler had the gloves taken away from him. It looks almost inevitable that Foakes will have to wait until the back end of the India tour to get his chance, once Buttler has left the biosecure bubble.
The selectors have decided not to promote one of Mason Crane, Matty Parkinson or Amir Virdi will be promoted to join the squad, or they could trust Root’s part-time off-spin to do an adequate job as a third outlet. As for the final bowling spot, it would be surprising if we saw James Anderson and Stuart Broad in this game, due to the fact we have 17 Tests to play this year and the pitch at Galle does not seem likely to offer them much, if any, assistance. Mark Wood or Olly Stone may be picked as they offer express pace to combine with the spinners. England are favorites, but it will be interesting to see if their batsmen can perform and if the spinners can make use of the conditions.
Watch Out For:
Recognised as one of the more reliable Test openers in world cricket, Karunaratne has had a difficult time of it recently. He went nine innings without a fifty and made just one century in 35 innings before his superb second-innings 103 gave Sri Lanka a slither of hope in their most recent Test against South Africa in Johannesburg.
Sri Lanka have several fitness concerns, not least among their batsmen, with Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Dhananjaya de Silva and Oshada Fernando all struggling to be available after injuries in South Africa. So, with the possibility of the home side fielding another weakened batting line-up, much will fall on the experience of Karunaratne at the top of the order to anchor the batting and provide the platform for competitive totals.
After several up and down displays, Bess is in a strange period where many believe he can explode into life as England's first-choice spinner but are still, after ten Tests, waiting for him to do so. His five-wicket haul in South Africa last winter offered promise, though his performances in England during the summer, where he took eight wickets at 55.5, proved that there is still much to work on.
With pitches expected to turn sharply once again in Sri Lanka, Bess has a perfect opportunity to use more favorable conditions to his advantage and nail down his spot not only for the India tour in February and March but for the summer and beyond. The spotlight will be on him to prove that he can consistently perform at this level.
Sri Lanka Team News:
After a plethora of injuries on their recent tour of South Africa, Sri Lanka are waiting on the fitness of Dhananjaya, Chandimal, Kasun Rajitha, and Lahiru Kumara ahead of the first Test. As a result, Kusal Mendis is set to continue at No. 3 despite a dismal recent run in Tests, while Angelo Mathews returns to bolster the middle-order.
Harasanga de Silva and Dilruwan Perera are expected to be the two spinners, while Vishwa Fernando is set to lead the attack in Rajitha's absence.
D. Karunaratne ©, K. Perera, K. Mendis/O. Fernando, D. Chandimal, A. Mathews, D. De Silva, N. Dickwella (wk), D. Perera, Harasanga de Silva, V. Vernando/K. Rajitha, L. Kumara.
England Team News:
With Rory Burns unavailable, Zak Crawley joins Dom Sibley at the top of the order, while Jonny Bairstow is expected to bat at No. 3 due to his skill against spin and success on the last tour, where he hit 110 from that position in Colombo. Dan Lawrence is set to make his debut in middle-order, with Jos Buttler remaining as the first-choice keeper, edging out Ben Foakes.
Moeen is ruled out so a decision will be made on Sam Curran and Chris Woakes for the all-rounder slot at No. 7, with Curran likely to get the nod due to Woakes' lack of match practice. Dom Bess and Jack Leach will be the two frontline spinners, with Stuart Broad or Jimmy Anderson providing control and Mark Wood or Olly Stone offering valuable pace.
D. Sibley, Z. Crawley, J. Bairstow, J. Root ©, D.Lawrence, J. Buttler (wk), S. Curran/C. Woakes, D. Bess, S. Broad/J. Anderson, M. Wood/O. Stone, J. Leach.
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