Having already navigated their away around both the incessant rain and their opponents in the ODI and T20I legs of their tour of Sri Lanka, England now turn their attention to red ball cricket, when the first of three Test matches gets underway in the shadow of the famous Galle fort on Tuesday.
Above: The famous Galle Fort will play backdrop to the first Test from Tuesday.
The weather has been an ever-present issue on this tour, not surprising given it was scheduled in the middle of monsoon season for reasons known only to the people in charge of scheduling, and it has continued to be so in the run-up to the Tests. England’s final warm up was curtailed to just a 50-over a side affair thanks to yet another biblical downpour. That has not help their preparations one bit, and they still have several decisions to make before the first ball is bowled in Galle.
This is the first outing in white clothing since the retirement of legendary opening batman Alastair Cook in the summer, and the side continues to have a developmental feel to it. The camp has been further rocked by the ankle injury sustained by Jonny Bairstow playing football in training, which means they enter the match in Galle without their first choice keeper.
There are as many as four uncapped players in England’s squad. One of them, Surrey’s Rory Burns, is a shoe-in to replace Cook, and his county team-mate Ben Foakes could make his debut in place of Bairstow if the selectors are wary of placing too much responsibility on Jos Buttler. Joe Denly is also a potential starter in either the other opening slot (at the expense of Keaton Jennings), or at three depending on how England want to balance their side. The also need to decide whether or not to play two or three spinners – with jack Leach seemingly in contention with Stuart Broad for the final bowling slot.
Although ranked third in the world, England’s form in Tests can best be described as topsy-turvy of late. They are coming off a 4-1 series win over India, where the eventual scoreline flattered them, and prior to that drew at home with Pakistan and suffered series defeats to both Australia and New Zealand down under. Away from in particular is a worry – England have not won a Test outside of Great Britain for over two years, a run of 10 defeats and three draws in that time. Add to that an overall losing record in Sri Lanka and having never won in four attempts at Galle, and it does seem like an uphill effort for the visitors.
For the hosts, this match is likely going to be an emotional one, as it marks the last appearance of the seemingly ageless spinner Rangana Herath, who has announced he will retire at the end of the first Test, aged 40. Herath has become a much-loved legend over the last ten years, and his numbers are astonishing in that period, taking nearly 400 wickets since his 30th birthday – a world record by a wide margin – and becoming the leading left-handed wicket taker in Test history. He will be sorely missed, and the home team will be pumped to give him a farewell win that he richly deserves.
Sri Lanka’s form over the last year or so in Tests is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good. Despite being ranked a lowly sixth, they have won their last three Tests, and indeed only lost two of their last twelve. In that period they have notched up series wins over South Africa at home, Bangladesh away and Pakistan in the UAE – the latter a feat not many teams can lay claim to in recent years. They are a very strong side in turning conditions, and will be a stern challenge for their visitors.
So, all in all, a fascinating Test awaits – let’s hope the rain stays away long enough to let it proceed as planned!
As always, here is my run-down of some personal milestones to keep an eye out for over the next week:
Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka)
Where else to start but with the retiring Herath, who currently has 430 Test wickets to his name, enough for tenth place in the all-time list. Five more wickets in his final Test could see him leapfrog New Zealand’s Richard Hadlee (9th, 431), England’s Stuart Broad (8th, 433 -but see below!) and India’s Kapil Dev (7th, 434) and ensure he keeps his spot in the top ten for a good few years ahead.
Stuart Broad (England)
Due to the spinning conditions, England’s second highest wicket-taker of all time is by no means guaranteed to keep his place in the XI, but if he does, he will also be looking to overtake Kapil Dev and move into 7th place in the wicket takers list (and to keep the wily Rangana from overtaking him to boot!)
Adil Rashid (England)
Having broken back into the Test side at home over the summer, and a certainty to play in Galle, Rashid needs two wickets to bring up both 200 in all formats for his country, and 50 in Tests.
Ben Stokes (England)
All-rounder Stokes needs just 26 runs with the bat to bring up 5,000 across all formats for England.
Jimmy Anderson (England)
More famed of course for his record-breaking exploits with the ball, barring declarations and innings victories, Jimmy will make his 200th appearance at the batting crease for England in Tests!