PREVIEW | England look to begin bumper year with subcontinent success
Forget the Zoom annual subscription or the ergonomic work-from-home standing desk, three Test matches running back-to-back through day and night for television audiences to gorge on whilst indulging on leftover trimmings was the perfect Christmas present. Admittedly, the festive cheer was aided by the fact there were no English batting collapses or tepid bowling performances to stew over, and now the calendar has ticked over to 2021, the time has come.
17 Test matches over the course of this year will surely prompt the question of “how much is too much?” for players, but for the fans, it is a mouthwatering prospect. An Ashes tour down under is the crescendo of the four year cycle, and India in their back yard is one of the toughest cricketing challenges. But before we get to that main course, a two Test aperitif against Sri Lanka awaits, rearranged from March last year.
It rather sums up the times we are living in that England’s opposition were getting pummelled in South Africa when England arrived for their isolation period, feeling like guests arriving to a party before the hosts. What's more, no sooner had England landed, than Moeen Ali was carted off for an extended spell of isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, with his Midlands car-pooling partner Chris Woakes also shut off from the world.
With isolation done for those cleared, the tour provides an opportunity for England to suss out their subcontinent game plan. It’s not a given that they will walk away with a series win against an opposition who have made a habit of producing maverick talents, and the tourists have two headaches in particular to contend with.
Chris Silverwood has probably known what his best top six is for a year, but he is still searching for some continuity that has eluded him due to injury or ill-form since he took over. This time, it is Rory Burns and Ollie Pope who are unavailable, the former to attend the birth of his child, while Pope is injured. Every cloud has a silver lining, and Dan Lawrence will likely be first to congratulate Rory Burns on the birth. The Surrey opener’s omission could open the door for Lawrence’s debut, but it will be a frustration for England that they haven't been able to nail down their batting line up ahead of this year.
Incidentally, Captain Root has earmarked 2021 as a year to stamp his authority as a world-class batsman. The skipper has produced a disappointing return since assuming the role in February 2017, averaging 42.81 since then, compared to 68.86 over the three years previous.
There is cause for optimism for the Yorkshireman. He scored a ton on his last tour of Sri Lanka and will be hoping he can recall a similar spirit this time around. It would good omen for his side should he do so; England have never lost a Test in which Root has scored a hundred.
Then comes the conundrum of his White Rose team mate Jonny Bairstow. Cast away to score runs in the County Championship that never happened, he has once again been recalled to provide cover for the promising, yet elusive, Pope. If anyone has something to prove it is Bairstow, with his Test future hanging by a thread and the Old Cranleighan ready to reclaim his spot once fit.
We know that Bairstow possesses grit and determination. He proved that at the outset of his international career with his emotional hundred in Cape Town. Sadly, we (and his opponents) also know he has a gaping hole between bat and pad, not helped by a swashbuckling white ball technique which has proved so effective in coloured clothing.
He is another who will be looking to draw on past experience. A century in the final Test just over two years ago, as well as a Player of the Series award against Sri Lanka at home in 2016, will fill him with the kind of confidence that he has struggled to maintain since yo-yoing in and out of the Test squad recent series.
This department will doubtless be a worry for Ed Smith and James Taylor. England haven’t been blessed with a match-winning spinner since the departure of Greame Swann, a particular concern with India on the horizon, and exacerbated by the loss of a fit and firing Moeen Ali.
Dom Bess and Jack Leach will get opportunities in the Galle dust bowl. The spin pairing have traded red ball spots for the last few years while Matt Parkinson has toured the world carrying water bottles, but neither have convinced. It is a wonder that Parkinson has not been given more opportunities to play with the India series ahead, but one feels England have resigned themselves to not risking leg spin, despite Adil Rashid's success in India last time out.
The issues with England's spin options lie with Bess’ defensiveness and Leach’s inconsistency. Bess has acted to tie up an end in recent series, which he has done effectively but not threatened to do much more. Meanwhile, Leach’s finest hour with ball in hand came in Kandy in 2018, a five wicket haul contributing to a series tally of 18 - form which he has since struggled to replicate.
If England are to be successful in India, it is imperative they have a spinner to win them the game in the fourth innings. This Tour provides a dress rehearsal. A failure to perform well here will cast aspersions over the side's realistic chances of winning in India.
Alas this hump must first be overcome. It won't require a world beating performance for England to beat an out-of-sorts Sri Lanka side, but standards must be maintained. Batting first, the top order need to familiarise themselves with the spinning pitches and score big to earn themselves a plane ticket to India and Australia. Ball in hand, the wise old pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad have a chance to prove they are evergreen and able to make an impact in difficult swing bowling conditions, while Bess and Leach can put their name firmly in the England reckoning moving forwards.
Three series wins in a year would have been high up the list of Joe Root's new year's resolutions, and it starts in a Sri Lanka. England have a job to do to to prepare for this bumper year, and help provide some light relief to a frustrated, locked down nation.