Sri Lanka was anything but the teardrop island for England when they last visited for a Test series in late 2018, with an aggressive, all-rounder-packed approach returning a 3-0 clean sweep and earning the short-lived tag of “total cricket” in some quarters.
However, so much has changed by way of selection and tactics since – not least the departure of head coach Trevor Bayliss, who knew the conditions like the back of his floppy sun hut – that harking back to past glories offers only so many benefits.
Joe Root was keen to stress this point ahead of tomorrow’s first Test in Galle. Since the departure of Bayliss, England’s batting mantra under Chris Silverwood has become about forging big totals no matter how long it takes; rightly or wrongly, building a template for next winter’s Ashes series is the big picture project at play.
“We were exposed to some very extreme conditions last time and we had a side that suited to playing in that manner,” said Root, whose quickfire 124 from 146 balls in Kandy embodied the team orders. “We have a slightly different make-up of the team and squad now this time, whose strengths lie in different areas.
“We have that experience [from 2018] in the bank and can play in that manner if we need to. We might not be looking at scoring at three-and-a-half to four runs an over but it is still about big first-innings runs, trying to get 400-plus.
“It might also be that 300 is a massive score as well. How we get there is by adapting to the conditions in each individual’s own way.” Spin is clearly on the menu for these two Tests in Galle, a venue that has gone 11 matches without a draw. As Root noted, the key will be how quickly it starts to truly hold sway and whether, with minimal preparation time leading into the series due to bubble life, England’s batsmen can adjust their games accordingly.
While Sri Lanka’s seam stocks have swelled of late under their head coach, Mickey Arthur, and David Saker, England’s former bowling coach, they will likely still unleash three spinners in Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya and Wanindu Hasaranga, each posing a different threat.
For an opener such as Dom Sibley, whose watchful obduracy against the seamers has been a bedrock of the new approach, we will soon discover if he has developed the release shots against slow bowling that his game perhaps lacked last summer.
Sibley will be joined by wunderkind Zak Crawley up top – Rory Burns is on paternity leave, while the subcontinental specialism of Keaton Jennings was not recalled – with Jonny Bairstow making an intriguing comeback at No 3, the position that produced the last of his six Test centuries with a fired-up 110 in Colombo.
“Jonny has got a wealth of experience and he’s had good success here in the past,” said Root. “It’s a good opportunity for him and he’ll certainly be trying to grab it with both hands to make a mark in the Test team again.” Thereafter comes a middle order of the captain himself and the wristy Dan Lawrence – on debut and in for the rested Ben Stokes – before Jos Buttler bats at No 6. He will do so while also juggling the wicketkeeping gloves as Ben Foakes, man-of-the-series last time after an 11th hour call-up, carries drinks for his colleagues.
Buttler’s glovework – up at the stumps and in the heat – will be much scrutinised as a result of the bar that Foakes set. With England’s spin attack down to two fellow men of Somerset in Jack Leach and Dom Bess – Moeen Ali is quarantined, while Adil Rashid has paused his Test ambitions – friendships could be tested.
Root will likely have three seam options, starting with one of James Anderson and Stuart Broad – on rotation this winter, it seems, and less likely to grumble about it than during an English summer – a left-arm angle through all-rounder Sam Curran, plus pace and possible reverse swing from Mark Wood or Ollie Stone.
Sri Lanka flew back from a 2-0 defeat in South Africa with a long injury list but are at least battle-hardened. Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews are likely fit again, meaning the middle order has ballast after a fire-and-ice opening combo of Dimuth Karunaratne, their calm, in-form skipper, and the explosive Kusal Perera.
While the series is being staged behind closed doors, locals will still be able watch from the Dutch fort. Potentially joining them will be Rob Lewis from Sunbury-on-Thames, an England supporter who flew out for this tour’s original slot last March and decided to wait for the team to return when the pandemic struck.
Otherwise there will be no Barmy Army to lift English spirits during hot days in the field as this new-look touring team sets out on a challenging winter of six subcontinental Test matches and a year-long project that is building towards its end goal in Australia.