If England Lions needed any reminder that they are just one step away from the international stage as they embark upon a five-match series in Sri Lanka, Tom Curran’s dead-of-night text message from the national selector, James Whitaker, duly provided it.
When Curran went to bed in Dambulla after the four-day leg of the tour, he was an England Lion, just looking forward to advancing his reputation in a series that he knew would make little impact back home. When he awoke around 4.30am it was to discover instructions to pack his bags and join England’s senior tour of the Caribbean. All it took was a couple of sentences for his aspirations, at 21, to move a step nearer reality.
Andy Flower, full of vim again in his relatively new role as England Lions coach, recognises that fact. “The loss of a player from our squad and being promoted to the full England squad is always a reminder to them about how close they are to fulfilling their dreams,” he said.
Such reinforcement does no harm as the Lions prepare the face Sri Lanka A, a series which will be quickly followed by the North v South affair, another 50-over series, in the UAE. Together they realistically represent the last chance for players to advance their case for late inclusion in the Champions Trophy in England this summer. It is quite a prize. Unbeloved in some eyes it might be, its future permanently under question, but this is the tournament that will dominate the first part of the English summer.
Curran might yet become a Champions Trophy bolter especially as the composition of England’s seam attack remains uncertain: Mark Wood’s recovery from injury is ongoing, Liam Plunkett’s enforcer role has not entirely convinced and Stuart Broad’s ambitions about a white-ball comeback have yet to receive much official encouragement.
To come into the reckoning as a batsman seems a harder task, but Ben Duckett, in particular, will want to restate his credentials over the next 10 days after his blip in the Test series in India when his technique against spin, most strikingly involving his method of staying markedly leg side of the ball, was unpicked by R Ashwin.
Duckett’s prolific 2016 was never more wondrous than during his appearances for the Lions last summer. Against the same Sri Lanka A opposition, he registered the highest-ever score by an England Lions player, making 220 in Canterbury in an unbeaten stand of 367 with Daniel Bell-Drummond, the joint-second highest List A partnership of all-time. Duckett and Bell-Drummond will be reunited on Thursday, but it remains to be seen whether confidence will come flooding back on subcontinental pitches.
It might be asking a lot of Liam Livingstone to make his own case. He is only two years into his first-class career, still not all that well known outside Lancashire. But two hundreds in a match in the last four-day game against Sri Lanka A have already done much for his self-belief and reputation, revealing him as a destructive hitter with a selective cricket brain. “He hits the ball as hard as anybody I can remember,” said Flower, and he does not give praise glibly.
In cricket’s brave new world, where international cricket and Twenty20 jostle for attention, England Lions tours can these days pass by almost unnoticed. Spectators will be virtually non-existent, media interest patchy at best. Passion has to come from within. England might no longer be able to discover at Lions level who can withstand the pressure of a shrieking and hostile crowd, but they can still find out a lot about the internal drive that should rightly turn every representative match into something to cherish.
Flower accepts this fact of life. “Ideally we would love a packed crowd but realistically these days we aren’t going to get it so recreating the atmosphere of a true international game with that regard is not going to happen,” he said.
“However, what they are getting is scrutiny. They have selectors watching their results constantly and they are competing with their peers. These are all ambitious young guys, looking at each other and judging each other. There is that individual ambition, but there is also the fact that they are representing their country with a lot of pride.”
The presence of a selector on Lions tours is an admirable development (Mick Newell has replaced Angus Fraser for the one-dayers). It adds to the sense of scrutiny, enables players to develop a working relationship with those who sit in judgment on their careers, and also provides an opportunity for selectors to gain an impression of the next generation not just as players but as personalities.
There was a time when a developmental side pulled in the crowds. Twenty-five years ago, with such trips still in their infancy, England A fulfilled a ground-breaking tour to Sri Lanka, which had been starved of international cricket for several years because of a nationalist uprising. Now tourism is booming; then a Sri Lanka dressing room attendant was able to say without too much exaggeration: “You are the first foreigner I have seen for years – I am lucky to be alive.”
An unorthodox spinner called Muttiah Muralitharan attracted attention for the first time and, for England, Nasser Hussain, Mark Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe all emerged with credit. The crowds flocked in. In Murali’s first appearance, the stand roof fell down like a pack of dominoes, but nobody much seemed to mind.
These days, beginning with the first match in Dambulla on Thursday, the only certainty is that the ubiquitous Dambulla dog will put in an appearance. It sat attentively for England’s sole practice session before it was curtailed by a heavy downpour. Most of these young Lions might only have a dog’s chance of a Champions Trophy spot, but that won’t stop them trying to make it over coming days and weeks. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)