By David Green
The criticism directed at England following the draw at Lord’s shows just how far that they have come since the Strauss-Flower axis was hastily convened in early 2009.
Four series victories on the trot, home and away Ashes triumphs, seven rubbers unbeaten and five wins by an innings in their seven prior Tests to Lord’s all meant that England had set an extremely high bar.
So it is perhaps understandable (albeit a little harsh), that a mixture of a below par performance by the bowlers, the weather, a benign pitch and a brilliant knock by Tillakaratne Dilshan led to much muttering and grumbling in the press as England drew a Test for the first time since Brisbane last November.
Nevertheless, many of the ingredients of England’s success over the last two years were on show at Lord’s. The recovery from 22 for three on the first morning to post a decent 486 showed the quality and resolve of a team that bat deep. Similarly, the comeback from the bowlers to dismiss Sri Lanka for 479 after they had been 370 for two demonstrated that this is a side that is always likely to bowl the opposition out.
The record under Strauss and Flower now stands at an impressive 16 wins, 10 draws and only five defeats. There will be the occasional blip like Lord’s (Perth, The Oval last summer against Pakistan and Johannesburg being others), but the overall curve of performance certainly continues to be upward.
With India lying in wait later in the summer, England will hope to mark the Rose Bowl’s first Test match with a resounding victory to seal the series and continue the march to their goal of being the number one ranked Test side.
If the weather holds, a Sri Lankan side without Dilshan and a bowling attack that looks distinctly county level would appear to be ripe for the taking.
With the return of James Anderson, the only question mark for England is whether it is Stuart Broad or Steve Finn that drops out.
Kumar Sangakkara steps in as captain for Sri Lanka just two months after resigning from the job following the World Cup. Lahiru Thirimanne, 21, comes in for his Test bow to replace Dilshan at the top of the order. The combination of bowlers that will be picked awaits to be seen - not that it will probably matter too much
Look out for…
Kevin Pietersen returns to the Rose Bowl for the first time since a fairly acrimonious ending to his five-year stint at Hampshire, during which time he was seen less often than Haley’s Comet. England need Pietersen fully firing for the clash with India, so will be hoping that his confidence-boosting 72 in the second innings at Lord’s augers for more runs here. Let’s hope he can find his way from Chelsea.
With the exception of the odd glorious cover drive on one knee, Kumar Sangakkara has had a distinctly mediocre series to date. However, he averages over 70 as captain, so perhaps his temporary return to the helm will spark uplift in form. He warmed up with a hundred against Essex last week, so get ready for plenty of champagne moments to mark the Rose Bowl’s debut as a Test ground.
Previously at the Rose Bowl
The Rose Bowl becomes the tenth Test venue in England and Wales, having previously staged 12 ODIs and two T20Is. England will hope that the ground will inspire a summer as memorable as that of 2005 when the first clash with Australia in a T20 match at the Rose Bowl saw England triumph by 100 runs after bowling out the tourists for just 79.
Many of England’s batsmen are having glorious runs with the bat at the moment. We compared the stunning figures of Alastiar Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell in favourable terms to Pippa Middleton’s derriere last week. But aside from the odd smashed window, Matt Prior is on an impressive streak too. Starting with a scratchy 93 against Bangladesh at Old Trafford last summer, England’s keeper averages 59 in his last 12 Tests with a Gilchristesque strike rate of just under 70.
When you look at the collective career stats of the Sri Lankan bowling attack at Lord’s it is hardly surprising that they struggle to bowl opposing sides out. Combined they have played 95 Tests and have 226 wickets at an average of 42 and a strike rate of a wicket every 73.3 balls. Have two cricketers ever been missed by a team as much as Murali and Chaminda Vaas?
The weather forecast does not bode well, but if there is enough play over the five days it is difficult to see anything other than an England win to wrap up the series.
(David Green is the brain behind the irreverent The Reverse Sweep blog and also writes for a number of cricket publications and sites such as World Cricket Watch. You can follow him on Twitter also @TheReverseSweep. David was a decent schoolboy and club cricketer (and scored his maiden 100 the same week that Sachin Tendulkar scored his first Test ton) but not good enough to fulfil his childhood dream of emulating Douglas Jardine by winning the Ashes in Australia and annoying the locals into the bargain. He now lives with his wife and two young children in the South of France and will one day write the definitive biography of Hedley Verity)