Atherton on Testing Times Ahead under the Fort in Galle

Michael Atherton, in The Times, 13 January 2021, where the title runs thus: Sri Lanka v England: Sultry contest offers a beautiful distraction”

There will be a wistful feeling for those looking on during the early, dark, dismal hours in England. The venue for the two Tests in Sri Lanka is Galle, the delightful city on the southern tip of the island, and home to one of the most atmospheric cricket grounds on the international circuit. Of all the touring destinations, it remains among the most cherished for England supporters planning a winter break.

Spectators look on from the fort during the 2001 series between the sides
Spectators look on from the fort during the 2001 series between the sides

The stretches either side of Galle, along the coast, would be in demand too, but the 16th-century Portuguese Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains the destination of choice. The beautiful houses with their shaded courtyard swimming pools would be prime rental targets for travellers, while the restaurants within the walls of the fort would do a busy trade beyond playing hours. In January in England, it is hard to think of a more enticing place to be right now.

The empty ground tomorrow will carry a reminder of our predicament, one more reason to be thankful for the cricket coming our way. There are those who think elite sport should be abandoned during a pandemic, but with the walls closing in, all the forces at the moment are corralling us into existing rather than living and a little distraction is surely a good thing, once there is no sense that travelling and playing is adding to the burden.

Given the strict protocols around both teams, the risk-return profile is in cricket’s favour. Moeen Ali is well after testing positive for Covid-19 but must remain in isolation for a few more days and is unlikely to feature at all given that the second Test starts a week on Friday. The negative results for his team-mates are a relief to all — the latest round will return today — and a reminder of how seriously the protocols are taken. Sri Lanka’s players have been tested every three days on their return from South Africa, where they were drubbed 2-0 in the recent Test series, and remain clear of the virus.

No crowd, maybe, but some old challenges of playing in Galle remain. The temperatures will be about 29C, the humidity high (there has been a fair amount of rain of late) and the pitch receptive to spin, all of which take some getting used to, with England’s players emerging blinking into the sunlight from winter darkness. Still, success in 2018 shows it can be done.

England whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 on the island for the first time, including a victory at Galle that sent them on their way, although there are likely to be only a handful of survivors in the XI that take the field this time. Counterintuitively, while England’s Test team is more ordered and settled under Chris Silverwood than it was under Trevor Bayliss, the previous coach, it may be less suited if the same style of cricket prevails. Principally because England 2021 may be less threatening with spin than three years ago, when 48 wickets fell to Jack Leach, Adil Rashid and Ali. There is no Ali, Rashid’s right shoulder is no longer up to the rigours of first-class cricket and Leach has been beset by illness since the tour to New Zealand in 2019, playing only two first-class matches since then.

England were adventurous three years ago in approach, when only one specialist seamer took the field, but will line up in more orthodox fashion this time. Mark Wood and Sam Curran — with Chris Woakes not quite up to speed after his isolation period, having been in close contact with Ali — will operate with whoever of Stuart Broad or James Anderson is rotated. Should Broad be left out in Galle, do not expect the same kind of volcanic eruption that followed his omission from the opening Test of last summer. This time, at least, logic would be with the selectors.

Absence and injury allow for opportunity in the batting line-up, especially for Jonny Bairstow and the debutant Dan Lawrence, who will bat either side of Joe Root in the middle order. Having been overlooked for an inferior wicketkeeper in Jos Buttler, and having lost his Test contract, Bairstow might have wondered whether a chance would come again. No Rory Burns (parental duty) and no Ben Stokes has given Bairstow another go, one he will try to grasp as readily as he did in Colombo three years ago by scoring 110, on return from injury — his last significant contribution as a Test batsman.

Leach and Dom Bess are set to lead England’s spin attack in the first Test

Barring a last-minute mishap, Lawrence will become cap No 697. The 23-year-old Essex batsman has had a dramatic 18 months, with all manner of ups and downs: the death of his mother most desperately of all, a championship medal, Covid, a successful Lions trip to Australia and now an England debut. Listening to him during the build-up to this game was to be impressed by his openness, evident sense of excitement and willingness to back his method, which may not be orthodox but which has worked for him so far. What a few days await for Lawrence.

He will be hoping to emulate Ben Foakes, who began a Test career at this ground with a bang. If he does, he will give the selectors a headache, with Ollie Pope waiting in the wings and using the Sri Lanka trip to ready himself for India, and Stokes certain to return. It has surprised me that Foakes’s wicketkeeping has not come into the discussion on selection more, as he was outstanding on this tour three years ago.

This rescheduled tour to Sri Lanka, after it was postponed in March, breaks new ground in some unfortunate ways. For never in modern history has preparation for a touring side been so thin, consisting of some indoor/outdoor sessions at Loughborough in December, one day of practice in the middle in Hambantota and a few days in the nets in the run-up to the match. Players now are conditioned not to need endless practice matches, but still.

Nor has any tour been so little accompanied. No spectators and no written journalists from England or the home nation, leaving a handful of TV commentators for the world feed on site. It is a far from ideal scenario, but that is where we are. As in the English summer, we hope the players can provide slick entertainment to help steer us through what will hopefully be the last few months of this torrid spell.

First Test
Sri Lanka v England

Jan 14-18 (from 4.30am)
Live on Sky Sports Cricket and BBC radio

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