Preview of Englandís Test Series against Sri Lanka, November/December 2007
England take on Sri Lanka in a three test series fresh from a much needed break after a busy year of international cricket, in what should be a closely fought and challenging series for both teams. England come into the test series after a 3-2 victory against the hosts a month ago, which was as unexpected as it was historic, with Paul Collingwood captaining England to a memorable series victory.
However, Englandís fortunes in test cricket have been as mixed as they have been in the shorter form of the game in the last year, with the last three series including a disappointing but deserved home defeat to India, a hammering of a pitiful and pathetic West Indies side, and the first Ashes whitewash for 85 years, only the second in Ashes history. However, despite England underperforming in tests recently, there have been a few positives to emerge, with the most notable being left-armer Ryan Sidebottom. The Nottinghamshire seamer now has 24 wickets at just over 25 in his 6 tests since returning to the side against the West Indies. He also averages an impressive 15.85 since his return to the ODI side, where his accuracy and hard work have reaped the rewards. The return to form of James Anderson is also reason to be upbeat as is the return of Matthew Hoggard, however, with the absence of Andrew Flintoff from the attack and the fact that Steve Harmison is seemingly becoming a bowler who no longer deserves his place in the England side, it leaves the England selectors with a few problems.
It was argued, before the ODI series against Sri Lanka last month, that Ryan Sidebottom would be ineffective on the lifeless, low Sri Lankan wickets and also argued that his similarity to Matthew Hoggard in terms of style and pace would essentially mean that only one of them could be picked if England wanted to bowl Sri Lanka out on a regular basis. However, Sidebottom once again exceeded expectations in the ODI series and it is now a reality that Hoggard and Sidebottom could be Englandís opening partnership for the test series.
Harmisonís loss of form and ineffectiveness in international cricket is something which cannot be ignored for much longer. Harmisonís last decent series was against Pakistan in 2006 and since then he has, quite frankly, been dire. His form in domestic cricket however has been nothing short of astounding, leading Durhamís attack and striking fear into those who face him, much like the 2004 vintage Harmison. It seems that there are two Steve Harmisons; one who, when playing for Durham, strikes fear into the heart of county batsmen and another who, when playing for England, strikes fear into the heart of first slip, should a stray one come his way. His recent performances in test matches suggest that it is time to replace Harmison in the England side with some new blood, it is, however, understandable that the selectors want to give Harmison one more chance to show what he can do in test matches, but playing him could be a costly decision as the England bowlers cannot afford to carry anyone with the lack of Flintoff from the attack. Another problem for Harmison, though, is that those also vying for a place in the bowling line-up have been vastly more impressive than him in the last year. James Anderson bowled some impressive spells in the summer and Stuart Broad has continued to impress since making his England debut, both with bat and ball. England shouldnít give Harmison a place on reputation and potential alone. It has been a long while since he has bowled consistently well, and England cannot keep picking him on the hope that heíll get it right one day.
It seems though, that Harmison could miss out in Kandy through an injury sustained in the final warm up match, which is just one in a long line of injuries the Durham fast bowler has suffered recently in his career. This wonít be a great a loss to England as it seems, as Harmison was hardly in the best of form in either warm-up game, sending down 6 wayward and wicketless overs for 48 in the first match and returning 10.3-1-45-1 in the second match, hardly sterling stuff from a man who should be fighting for his place in the side. Stuart Broad will undoubtedly add to the variety of the England attack, offering something different to the swing of Anderson, Hoggard and Sidebottom, and somebody who will also add depth to the England batting line-up, which could potentially have Sidebottom, Hoggard, Anderson and Panesar as their last four.
Of course, England could also strengthen their batting line-up by playing off-spinner Graeme Swann, who put in some decent performances with the willow in the ODI series, as well as with the ball, though playing him just to strengthen the batting is perhaps not the greatest decision, he must warrant a place in the side with the ball as well.
Once again, it is clearly evident how the absence of Flintoff (in form or out of form) affects the balance of the England side. There are those who say that ďyour batsmen are there to get you runs, your bowlers are there to get you wicketsĒ, meaning that itís up to the batsmen to get the centuries and get you a decent score, and that it shouldnít matter how proficient your bowlers are with the bat. Well, while this is true to some extent, a side cannot afford to have a tail which starts at 8, and yes, while it is the job of the batsmen to get runs, itís difficult for a batsman to score many runs if heís stranded with numbers 8-11 who are as likely to be dismissed as they are to score a run. Conversely, itís not very much use having a bowler who can average 25 if their bowling is lacking, especially in a four man attack.
With Graeme Swann being left out of the final warm up match before the first test it appears to be the case that England will go in with Panesar as the sole spinner with Vaughan and Pietersen bowling a few overs here and there. The problem with part-time spinners and indeed part-time bowlers in general is that, more often than not, thereíll be a loose ball or two per over, something which releases the pressure in test match cricket, whereas itís not so costly in limited over cricket. Vaughan and Pietersen will be used to give the fast bowlers some rest in between spells rather than any particular wicket taking capacity, however, which will most likely be the case with Collingwood and Bopara, should Bopara play.
The sixth batsmanís place is the final issue which the England selectors will have to decide on in the run up to the first test, which is between Middlesexís Owais Shah and Essexís Ravi Bopara, with both being impressive at different stages in the last year, though neither has been consistently brilliant in an England shirt. The warm-up game against Sri Lanka Cricket Board Presidentís XI a week before the first test could be the game which decides who secures their place in the starting XI as there is little to decide between the two. It may be Owais Shah who holds the slight advantage, impressing in both the India and against Sri Lanka series in recent months, though his most recent test outing was one of nervous twitches and few runs, in contrast to his impressive debut test against India in 2006. Bopara is not far behind, and his excellent fielding and part-time bowling are things in his favour, but it remains to be seen whether he can successfully make the step up to the next level.
Regarding the outcome of the series, it could realistically go either way. It is unlikely that England would be too disappointed with a drawn series, but it would be foolish to suggest that they wonít be aiming to win this series, which would be a result as momentous as when Sri Lanka managed to draw the series 1-1 in England 18 months ago. To say that wins in the subcontinent are hard to come by would be an understatement. The way a team has to approach the game is entirely different, from the pitches to the conditions and even the fielding. For my money, there is not a great deal of difference in the ability of either side; Sri Lanka have the finest bowler in world cricket in Muralitharan, one of the finest batsmen in Kumar Sangakarra, the rapid Lasith Maliga, the accurate Chaminda Vaas, and their captain, Mahela Jayawardene, all of whom have the capability to take the game away from England.
England too have match winners in their ranks with Matthew Hoggard a bowler who can threaten batsmen on any surface, and one of the most promising spinners in the game, Monty Panesar. The batting line-up is also a talented one; Kevin Pietersen is always expected to have a good series (and rarely disappoints), Michael Vaughan will be looking to continue his superb batting form since coming back into the side this summer and Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood will form a top five that could well cause the Sri Lankan pace bowlers a few headaches if they apply theirselves in the tough Sri Lankan conditions.
England has perhaps more strength in depth than Sri Lanka, though, and it is for this reason that England should be optimistic. If England can knock over Sangakarra and Jayawardene without them making much of an impression then they stand a good chance of dismissing Sri Lanka for a low total as those two are the key batsmen. Of course, Englandís batting will have to stand up to the test of Vaas, Malinga and Murali, which again is unlikely to be easy. However, Vaas has lost some of the pace he had earlier in his career and relies mainly on accuracy, and whilst Malinga has the raw pace, he still has a tendency to go for runs quite frequently. How the England batsmen can combat master spinner Murali in his own country is the crucial area which could make or break the series for England. It goes without saying that Muralitharan is going to get wickets, and facing a man such as Murali is never going to be easy, but if England can play him well, then it will be a huge advantage as after Murali and Malinga, Sri Lanka lack any real match winning bowlers. It will no doubt be a tough ask for England to win the series, but the key word for cricket in the subcontinent is application. England no doubt has the talent to succeed in this series, but application with the bat and ball is crucial for Englandís success.
Series Prediction: 1-1