England aim to improve SL record

Andrew Strauss’ England face the challenge of winning their first Test in Sri Lanka for more than a decade when they begin their latest five-day assignment on March 26.

After memorably coming from behind to secure an historic 2-1 series victory in Colombo in 2001, England have suffered 1-0 defeats on their previous two visits to the south-Asian island.

It can be argued, however, that the upcoming tour provides a good opportunity for Strauss’ men to improve on their recent results in Sri Lanka and bounce back from their 3-0 loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.

Although any team containing Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan – not to mention the ever-consistent Thilan Samaraweera – clearly should not be underestimated, Sri Lanka’s form in the Test arena has dipped markedly since the retirement of legendary off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan in 2010.

In 17 Tests without Muralitharan – the leading wicket-taker in the history of international cricket – they have mustered just one win. That came in their last series when they levelled the three-match rubber in South Africa with a stunning 208-run triumph in Durban before losing the decider by 10 wickets at Cape Town.

In their home series since Muralitharan called it a day, Sri Lanka have drawn six of eight Tests – three of those coming in a frustrating three-match battle against West Indies that was heavily curtailed by rain.

Given the benign conditions that are often encountered on the sub-continent, it is perhaps no surprise that batsmen have generally held sway over the bowlers in recent matches in Sri Lanka.

The aforementioned eight Tests, including a match against West Indies at Pallekele that saw only 103.3 overs bowled due to inclement weather, featured one score of 99, 13 centuries, two double hundreds and a magnificent innings of 333 by Chris Gayle at Galle, the venue for this month’s first meeting.

This should surely provide confidence to England’s batting unit, who collectively struggled for form against Pakistan, but also emphasises the task facing the touring bowlers as they look to make inroads into a vastly experienced Sri Lankan line-up.

It remains to be seen whether Strauss and team director Andy Flower will opt to utilise two frontline spinners, as they did for the final two Tests in the UAE, when Monty Panesar partnered Graeme Swann to good effect.

Another look back over Sri Lanka’s last eight home Tests suggests the tactic may be a wise one, with 104 of 194 wickets having fallen to spin and slow bowlers averaging five runs per wicket less than seamers.

Slow left-armer Rangana Herath has enjoyed particular success, with 23 scalps at an average of 21.65 in his last four Tests on home soil, and can be expected to pose the greatest threat to England’s batsmen.

Interestingly, no Englishman has ever managed to score more than one hundred in Sri Lanka, although Alastair Cook has the opportunity to bring an end to that statistic should he follow up the 118 he scored at Galle in December 2007.