Just published this on t’huffington post…
After much trumpeting, backslapping and hour-long specials on Sky TV, last summer England were anointed world number one test side and presented with the ICC Disco Mace by a roller skating Sister Sledge (it is nearly camp enough for this to have really happened).
This is a position they still maintain thanks to some rain in Dunedin and no thanks to their ability to play Pakistan’s spinners in the UAE.
Everyone knows that to be a truly great side, which is what this England team are vying for, you need to be able to win in all conditions. Steve Waugh of the truly great Aussie side of the 90s and 00s called India “the final frontier”. The same applies to England anywhere in the sub-continent where they need to prove they can play spin in slow low conditions and bat sides out of games.
The England team is now in Sri Lanka for a two match quickie. A two-match series is the test cricketing equivalent of a knee trembler up against the bins and following the Pakistan debacle, they now need to win in Sri Lanka conclusively for a shot at even partial redemption. A conclusive win is usually highly unlikely in the official home of the draw and even this would leave question marks over players and techniques, so a win or at least a drawn series in India this winter is needed to suggest this is a side that might be considered among Waugh’s Aussie team one-day, which remember, is what the hype machine was suggesting before the Pakistan debacle.
Focusing on the here and now is something the modern media trained cricketer espouses and a conclusive win in Sri Lanka is actually possible. They are a team some disarray. Their state run cricket board is like a banana republic. They don’t pay their players that often and haven’t even booked a hotel for the team near to one of the test venues. They have also managed to schedule thousands of ODI’s, thousands of miles away as suitable warm-up.
This general dysfunction and the retirement of Murali have caused Sri Lanka to perform pretty badly in most recent test matches. They do have high quality batsman capable of posting very big scores but their seam bowling attack has fewer teeth than Wilfred Bramble and they lack a spinner like Saeed Ajmal who genuinely tormented England’s batsman in the UAE. Andy Flower actually threw a towel onto the pitch at one point it was so unpleasant to watch.
The closest Sri Lanka has to Ajmal is Ajantha Mendis who is currently injured and who has never matched his early promise. Rangana Herath is a skilful and consistent enough spinner, but lacks the ability to tear through sides even in home conditions (these are words I may possibly have to eat).
So this series presents a great opportunity for England to win back some confidence ahead of the winter tour to India and opportunities like this do not present themselves very often. If England can amass decent first or second innings total and the bowling unit, likely to have two or even three spinners if Samit Patel and Monty Panesar are selected perform as they did in the UAE, there is a possibility of a one or two nil victory.