If one were to look at the report for their tour so far, one would be forgiven for believing that England were touring deepest darkest Fife as opposed to the island paradise of Sri Lanka. In their infinite wisdom, the ECB decided to arrange for the start of the tour to coincide with the Subcontinent’s notorious monsoon season, and the one-day series was duly affected, with England clinching the contest 4-1, but with all five games being decided on the DLS method, which did England no favours in the fifth ODI, falling to a record 219 run defeat following the application of the infamously complex algorithm.
Other than the blip in the final match, however, England dominated what cricket was actually played amongst the rain delays. Among the finds of the series was Warwickshire seamer Olly Stone, whose fiery bowling sees him take a berth in the test squad for the first time. Also new to the squad is Surrey opening batsman Rory Burns, who’s sheer weight of runs in county cricket has seen him take the place of newly retired Alastair Cook despite what some might describe as an idiosyncratic technique, in which his backlift is exaggerated and towards gully. Indeed, there are many in the county game who believe it is this quirk which has kept him out of the side until now, since there are some who might describe such a technique as a technical flaw. Either way, he has certainly shown his worth at the top of the order, averaging 44.71 in first class cricket, albeit with the majority of his 7601 runs being scored on an extremely flat Oval pitch.
The final unfamiliar face to the side is Kent’s Joe Denly, who was last seen on the international scene wearing one-day colours for England in 2009. Now, nine years after his last international appearance, his top order batting and leg spin bowling has earned him a spot on an England touring party for the first time. Denly’s inclusion does a lot for the balance of the side, as he provides a spin option which allows England to avoid playing a third specialist spinner alongside Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and instead play an additional batsman to shore up what has been a somewhat shaky batting lineup of late. This would likely mean that Jack Leach, recalled to the squad following what some might say was an unfair exclusion from the test side in the summer, would once again struggle to get a look in. Another complication is the injury and likely unavailability of wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, who managed to turn his ankle playing football of all things before the fourth ODI. Ben Foakes has been called up to the squad as wicketkeeping cover, but one-day keeper Jos Buttler is likely to take the gloves ahead of the Surrey man according to captain Root, who when asked if Buttler would keep wicket in 6 November’s first test at Galle, said, “That will probably be the likely scenario.”
Galle will also be the final hurrah of one of Sri Lanka’s finest and most loved players, left-arm spinner Rangana Herath. At the ripe old age of 40, Herath will bow out at the ground on which he made his debut 19 years ago. To date, he has taken 430 test wickets, which puts him in 10th place in the all-time test wicket takers list, and only second to the great Muttiah Muralitharan for wickets for Sri Lanka. He is a remnant of a past age of international cricketers, cut more in the ilk of the likes of Shane Warne and Arjuna Ranatunga than of today’s honed athletes, but he continues to be a menace to the world’s batsmen, taking 6-98 in the second innings in Sri Lanka’s last home test against South Africa in July. He is much loved by the cricketing community, and his retirement might well be the final curtain call of the great Sri Lankan side of the early 21st century.
So what should we expect out of this series? Recent history has shown that teams visiting Sri Lanka face dry, turning pitches, and it would be somewhat of a surprise if this was not what was currently being prepared in Galle, especially with England’s propensity to fall in a heap as soon as there is even the slightest hint of turn. I would expect Joe Denly to open alongside Rory Burns, with Keaton Jennings batting at three to hopefully regain the form which he showed last time he played in the subcontinent. After that, in a situation which is somewhat unusual for an England side, the team picks itself to an extent, with the only question being who of Ali, Stokes, and Buttler would bat at five. I would expect Sri Lanka to be formidable in home conditions, but with a fragile looking batting line-up devoid of those great batsman of the past, I think they might find a match in England. Let us hope that the all-too-common England collapse fails to rear its ugly head this time around.