An early victim of the coronavirus pandemic, England’s two-match Test series in Sri Lanka will finally begin on Thursday, having originally been scheduled for March 2020.
In the 10-month interval since the tour was postponed, England and Sri Lanka have endured mixed fortunes, but new stars have emerged in both camps and cricket in general has been forced to adapt to bubble life.
The Sri Lanka tour represents the start of a huge year for England’s Test team, who face India home and away and will travel to Australia in a bid to reclaim the Ashes.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, will be hoping to get back to winning ways following an unsuccessful but somewhat encouraging trip to South Africa.
England: Joe Root
The England captain did not make a Test century in 2020 and will be desperate to lead from the front in a year which sees his team tour India and compete for the Ashes.
Root looked in good nick during England’s two intra-squad warm-up matches, scoring 45 and 74 without being dismissed, and has scored two Test centuries in Sri Lanka.
Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley will be hoping to kick on following the promising starts to their international careers, while Jonny Bairstow is determined to justify his Test recall, but Root will remain Sri Lanka’s prized scalp.
Sri Lanka: Angelo Mathews
Veteran Mathews has fond memories of playing against England – he produced the innings of his life at Headingley in 2014 to help his team clinch a brilliant victory over Alastair Cook’s side.
While the 33-year-old has endured a frustrating period since that knock, averaging less than 30 in three of the last five calendar years, you feel an inexperienced Sri Lanka side will need Mathews to perform.
It would also be foolish for England to underestimate Mathews. After all, barring any mishaps, he will become just the fifth Sri Lankan to reach 6,000 Test runs during his series, after Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva.
England: Dom Bess
Of the 116 wickets to fall when these two teams met in 2018, 101 went to the spinners. Dom Bess was England’s first-choice spinner last summer but Jack Leach will also almost certainly play both Tests.
In truth, there’s not much to split the former Somerset team-mates but Bess should be more match fresh and certainly has a higher ceiling than Leach.
The Sri Lanka pitches are not expected to be quite as spinner-friendly as they were in 2018 so England greats Stuart Broad and James Anderson – tipped to play one match each – could add to their remarkable records.
Sri Lanka: Lasith Embuldeniya
The hosts are sweating on the fitness of Suranga Lakmal ahead of the first Test, so it would not be a surprise if he was absent for at least one of the matches.
Left-armer Embuldeniya has taken 30 wickets from his first seven Tests, including two five-wicket hauls and three four-wicket hauls.
The 24-year-old will not be as accurate as former Sri Lanka spinner Rangana Herath but can at least begin to follow in his footsteps, while fellow spinners Wanindu Hasaranga and Dilruwan Perera will also be eyeing productive series.
Sri Lanka 1-1 England
Despite England’s victories over West Indies and Pakistan last summer, they remain an unpredictable and flawed team.
They have certainly progressed under Chris Silverwood but are yet to prove they can score big first-innings runs on a consistent basis, while their lack of a spinner in the mould of Graeme Swann or Monty Panesar may be exposed in Sri Lanka.
That being said, they are the strongest team on paper and will likely cope with the absence of some star players – most notably Ben Stokes – to win at least one Test.
England’s preparation has been far from ideal, however, and Sri Lanka may catch them cold in the opener to ensure they get something out of the series.
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