How England can finally win in Sri Lanka
No more excuses. This is a golden opportunity for the tourists to end their dismal overseas Test run
We are used to England making par scores of 350 to win Test matches at home but they have struggled overseas in recent years because they have been unable to bat for long periods.
They have not been able to make the first innings last for 130 overs, or work out methods for taking wickets on pitches different to those in England and without the Dukes ball in hand. This three-match series against Sri Lanka is a good opportunity to show they have learnt. Sri Lanka are a good side. Nothing more.
This is a similar England team to the one that went to India two years ago and Australia last winter. There are one or two fresh faces but the majority of the side have played overseas before and cannot use the excuse of inexperience. Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler are all mature cricketers now. They have to show us they have improved and can win on the road. England have not won a Test overseas since beating Bangladesh in Chittagong two years ago. They have been hammered in India, Australia and were beaten by New Zealand. Time to change.
Yes, Alastair Cook has retired but for the past couple of winters he did not produce consistent scores overseas, so England cannot use the excuse of losing him.
The top order was not firing even with him in it. This summer it was difficult against the newer ball but in Sri Lanka the best time to bat will be at the top of the order.
Selection will be interesting and I have a feeling England will go with Joe Denly at three. I hope they are doing that because they think he is a better option with the bat than Ollie Pope, not just because they think Denly will offer a few overs of leg-spin. They have to pick the batsmen they feel will score the most runs, not offer a few overs of leg-spin, especially when you have a front-line leg-spinner in the team in Adil Rashid. If it goes down to Denly’s leg-spin then Rashid has had a stinker.
It does surprise me that Denly has moved ahead of Pope but that is the selectors’ decision to make. They will stand or fall on those calls. Ed Smith has done well so far and picking Denly will highlight his maverick approach.
But Pope is the future, the one young batsman in the squad with huge talent and potential. I think this series is the right time for him to bat at three.
Where it is difficult in Sri Lanka is batting from four to eight, because by then spin will be in the game, and the odd bit of reverse swing. It is very hard to start against a spinning ball or when it is reversing. It is much easier when it is fresh and hard. In the top three there is a great opportunity to reach 20 before breaking sweat so this is an opportunity to throw in a young kid.
Joe has never captained in the subcontinent. He has to draw on his own experience from playing in India and Bangladesh two winters ago under Cook and take that forward. He knows spin will play a big part but the skill levels of his seamers will be very dangerous as well.
The basics are going to be required as captain. You have to be unorthodox and adaptable too. If conditions are flat and require the long haul then you have to knuckle down, something England have struggled to do in the past. They have been unable to change their game to suit situations.
Catching will be crucial, especially around the bat and behind the stumps. Your concentration gets tested in hot conditions. They will have to take those chances.
These are all basics, but things England have not managed overseas because they are used to winning at home, which requires them to be switched on for much shorter periods. In England, Test matches move quickly and that suits their aggressive style.
If England lose in Galle some observers will blame the preparation, the fact they only played two two-day games and it rained. But if you look at the past two winters, England’s best performances were in the first Test of the series in Rajkot and Brisbane. They faded as the tours went on. Even when they were bowled out for 58 in New Zealand they had been playing Test cricket in that part of the world for months. So there is something more to it than preparation. It is mentality and a lack of concentration.
If England can get something out of Galle then they have a great chance. Rangana Herath retires after the first Test so Sri Lanka will lose a lot of experience and guile.
It makes the first Test so important. Only once in 13 Tests overseas have England taken 20 wickets. They need to go with their best two front-line seamers because the batting is so packed. They will want to play Sam Curran because he can make runs, more than Stuart Broad or James Anderson. There is an argument Curran will create rough outside off stump for Moeen, but he will also be doing that for Akila Dananjaya, Sri Lanka’s off-spinner, who is good in his own conditions.
After the way Broad and Anderson bowled in the summer I would go with the two big guns in the first Test. They have the experience and know-how. Anderson, Broad and Stokes. That is England’s best seam attack.
Catching will be crucial around the bat. They have to take chances
Selection issue: Joe Denly’s leg-spin could prove useful for England but, if chosen, it is runs they will really be looking for from the Kent player, while (above left) the tourists celebrate after sealing their series victory over Sri Lanka in 2001