Perhaps more than anywhere in the world the performance of your openers matters when you are in England. Exposing your middle order in conditions where the ball moves a lot in the first ten overs is best avoided. Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva performed this role admirably the last time Sri Lanka was in England. In fact, one of the forgotten and undervalued contributions on that tour was how these two kept at bay the English bowlers from getting a crack at Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews, in the first ten overs. They were slow and they didn’t put together record-breaking partnerships numbers but they did their job.
Two years later, their performance will arguably again be the single biggest factor when it comes to how Sri Lanka’s top order is likely to perform. Last time they had a safety net the size of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. This time, they have a young, able but untested top and middle order with not many tests between them. With the England bowlers having signalled their intention for dealing out some sweet revenge this time around, Karunaratne and Silva will be the first targets. The lead up to the test for both has not been great. Although Karunartne hopefully peaked around the corner with his century on the last day against the Foxes. The key again won’t really be the runs or the pace of runs, it will be blunting that new ball as much as possible.
The Middle Order
The fact that Lahiru Thirimanne was even picked for this tour raised a few eyebrows. For a batsman who has scored two half centuries in 35 innings over the last 2 years and the precision dissection of his technique offered up by James Anderson in 2014, he should count himself very lucky to be in England. Still, he has the support of ex-players, ex-selectors, current selectors and a litany of fans who still believe in him. It is hard to see how Thirimanne will overcome his lack of runs, lack of confidence at this level and face up to Anderson and Chris Broad again and come out on top
Kusal Mendis has shined in his limited opportunities. He seems have developed the skills that make up the qualities of a good number three. Mendis plays mostly on instincts and has the ability to play at his own pace within the context of the game. A rare skill. At 21 with only three tests to his name, the responsibility he bears is a big one. Especially given the player that occupied his post previously. It’s a challenge that could make him or break him but there is a quiet sense of optimism about his batting.
Mathews has worn the heavy weight of expectations placed on him well so far. His batting entered another realm a few years ago with the captaincy. And without his runs, the 2014 win would have never been a reality. While his runs are going to be a key again, it will be how he centres himself to guide his young batting line that will matter more. He has batsmen who are out of form, batsmen who are still in their training wheels and a few of his own demons to manage as he looks to get Sri Lanka over the line. There is no fall-back position for him this tour without Sangakkara and Jayawardene. The pressure on him is immense. His experience in these conditions is what will be drawn on by the youngsters. In short, Mathews has a lot on his plate. The worrying factor is that it might affect his runs. It’s a vicious cycle.
Dinesh Chandimal appeared to have turned a corner when he flayed India at Galle in 2015 for what was easily the best innings of his career. And then normal service resumed. Chamdimal is a player stuck on trying to figure out what kind of batsman he wants to be. Initially, he was a carefree attacking batsman. Then, perhaps with the ascendancy to captaincy and having become a “senior” player, his approach changed. If you watch his innings it’s like watching him battle the bowlers but equally himself. A war rages on within him between the batsman Chandimal naturally is and the batsman he thinks he needs to be. The former is when he’s been at his best. An iteration of that self in England is going to be important for Sri Lanka. But it all be down to which Chandimal wins inside his head.
Niroshan Dickwella might get picked solely to take the gloves off Chandimal. He’s yet another player with a lot to prove. His runs against Essex stand him in good stead but he’s not yet spoken of in the same level as Kusal Mendis. This tour is as bigger an opportunity as he will get to change that.
The Lower Order
Traditionally this area of the test batting line up is one that Sri Lanka has given up on over the last decade. And then Kusal Perera debuted and Milinda Siriwardene showed up. Perera will sit out the tests following his ICC – WADA did he, didn’t he drug fiasco. Siriwardana would struggle to buy a run at the moment. It is certainly an area of concern given that the top order itself is inexperienced and prone to being brittle. Both Siriwardana and Perera offered a new found counter-attacking philosophy down the order which was a breath of fresh air for Sri Lanka.
The most recent disciple of this path is Dasun Shanaka, another rookie who has given the selectors quite a bit to munch on with his hundred against Leicester. Whoever gets the nod for this position, it is hard to underscore how important a role this spot will play during the tests. He will need to have a series where he averages upwards of forty on this tour. And play a key role along with Mathews when batting with the tail. Otherwise, this could potentially be the pivot in the line-up where Sri Lanka loses matches from.
Dhammika Prasad, Shaminda Eranga, Nuwan Pradeep, Rangana Herath, Dushmantha Chameera, Suranga Lakmal
200 overs for nine wickets for 787 runs. That was the tally of the attack Sanath Jayasuriya has dubbed the “best attack in the world” in their two tour matches in England. Whatever happens with the batting if the bowlers do not perform Sri Lanka will have difficult month in England. Prasad was once again going to be the key. He is a bowler who was up trending in his career, a bowler who has the experience in getting wickets in England and the player who has bulldozed his way into being the leader of the attack. His injury for the first test is Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Glenn Mcgrath missing the 2005 Ashes test at Lords. It is that bigger a deal. Without Prasad leading the way Eranga and Pradeep will have to dial up their performance level. So far both these bowlers have played the supporting role during Prasad’s rise. Whether they can deliver on their own from the front line remains to be seen.
Dushmantha Chameera is quite easily the most exciting Sri Lankan fast bowling prospect since Chaminda Vaas. Chameera is raw, he has the pace, he has the bounce and most importantly he’s not a brain-dead tear away. He’s got a good change of pace and he thinks about how he will set up batsmen for his quick bouncer. Whether England’s batsman will find his pace unsettling as most batsmen in international cricket have is going to be an important factor. How Mathews uses Chameera will also be key. So far he has opted to use the youngster in shortish spells. And this should suit him and his frail body well.
Sri Lanka’s biggest problem, though, is likely to be the use of the old ball. None of the quick bowlers have mastered reverse swing or come very close to finding it. The ability to break partnerships late in the day or when the opposition has bedded down is going to be a struggle for this team. Sri Lanka’s chance lies in getting wickets early for Rangana Herath to spin a yarn around the lower order.
With the cloud of the Kevin Pietersen saga behind Alistair Cook and his men, England certainly is breaking new ground and territory. Paul Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss have infused a sense of modernism to their cricket. They have experience where it counts, in the top order and in their bowling. They are the hosts and the more settled side who are looking to kick off their summer on a high and entertain fans. England are also hurting from the 2014 loss and want to put it right. Stuart Broad has often been talking about serving up a plate of good old fashioned revenge.
Neither Cook nor Mathews is particularly inspiring as captains. Cook though, has experienced players whom he can rely on in a fight. Joe Root, Anderson and Broad have been through many difficulties in their careers over the last five years and form the core group that Cook will depend on. He can afford to captain on auto pilot.
For Mathews, the task difficulty has increased tenfold since 2014. The team is low on confidence. He does not have the experience of Mahela Jayawardene or Sangakkara to help out when in a rut. His team lacks the knowhow where it matters in the middle order and his bowlers are not in any particular form. Much of how Sri Lanka fares in the tests will depend on how much of a maverick Mathews will attempt to be. His use of his spinner and Chameera and how he guides an inexperienced and untested batting line up will be the main issues that need attention. In a team like Sri Lanka, in the current incarnation that they are in, captaincy can go a long way. It remains to be seen whether Mathews can evolve himself to meet this challenge
It would not be a surprise if this series ends up being a whitewash in England’s favour. The hosts are more settled, more experienced and better prepared for the battle. For Sri Lanka, the best hope is that they don’t lose in an utterly embarrassing manner. The odds are clearly against Sri Lanka. With weather possibly being a factor in early May they may get away with a draw at some stage.
In the end, it is truly up to this scattering of talented individuals to pull together as a team to prove that they are moving forward as a team and not fading into the giant shadows cast upon by their predecessors.
Prediction – 2-0 to England.