England's cricketers are back on Test duty on Thursday as they begin a two-match series with Sri Lanka - Richard Mann has four bets ranging from 12/1 to 7/2.
It was little over two years ago when England’s cricket team recorded one of its most notable modern-day achievements – certainly since the Andy Flower era anyway. In winning a Test series in Sri Lanka by a 3-0 scoreline, England proved themselves able to fight fire with fire – or spin with spin – and Joe Root’s side will bid to repeat history when the two sides lock horns again on Thursday.
This series takes on even greater significance as England begin 12 months of cricket that they hope will culminate with Ashes victory in Australia, while the hosts have much on the line, too, having yet to prove they can build a successful future without heroes of the past – Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. A recent 2-0 defeat in South Africa, on the face of it at least, does little to dispel that theory.
If you look beneath the surface, however, there is perhaps more cause for Sri Lankan fans to be optimistic and I certainly think they are capable of beating England on home soil.
The home side have been priced up at 7/2 for series victory on the basis of that aforementioned 3-0 loss to England two years ago, but Sri Lanka really were a team in transition at that point given Sangakkara and Jayawardene had still recently been part of the international set-up in limited-overs cricket.
While Sri Lanka might not have made giant strides since, I do think there has been more stability following Dimuth Karunaratne’s appointment as captain. That promises to be helped further by the recent arrival of vastly-experienced head coach Mickey Arthur and there were signs in South Africa over Christmas, particularly in the first innings of the Boxing Day Test match, that he was already making his mark on the team.
Arthur’s reputation suffered when he was axed as head coach of Australia just before the 2013 Ashes, but it shouldn’t be forgotten what a crucial hand he played in the early days of Michael Clarke’s heralded captaincy. Either side of that role, Arthur did great things with the South African national side before presiding over Pakistan’s Champions Trophy victory in 2017 and their rise to the summit of the Test world rankings a year earlier.
Make no mistake, Arthur is a terrific coach; a real hands-on operator who demands blood, sweat and tears from his players but rewards those who give that to the cause with unwavering loyalty and support. More often than not, these methods have paid dividends and under his watch, I suspect England will find Sri Lanka a much more organised, well-drilled and efficient outfit than the one they outpointed on their last visit to these shores.
Furthermore, the batting unit should be more capable of posting big scores this time around with Karunaratne and the dangerous Kusal Perera forming an opening partnership that hinted at good things in South Africa. With a fit-again Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews filling the middle order positions, the batting has quality and, crucially, plenty of experience.
Chandimal and Mendis are yet to really make the most of their talents, but the former displayed a more mature side to his character when gritting his teeth to defy a spicy Centurion surface and make 85 on Boxing Day before a hamstring niggle cut short his tour.
He is reported to be back to full fitness now, and though Dhananjaya de Silva’s absence through injury is a big loss, there is sufficient quality in that top five to hurt an England bowling attack missing both Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes.
Their own bowling stocks boast a typically strong hand of spin options, with Dilruwan Perera familiar to England having picked up 22 wickets in the corresponding series two years ago. Leg spinner Wanindu Hasaranga is another name to watch out for given how well he bowled in South Africa, while Suranga Lakmal’s return provides control in a similar role to that which James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be expected to carry out for the tourists.
That doesn’t mean this Sri Lanka attack is one to keep opposition batsmen up at night, but it will be perfectly serviceable in home conditions and considering the absences they have to contend with, I’m not convinced England’s will be any better served on these pitches.
While Anderson and Broad are proven world-class performers all around the world, they are at their most threatening when able to move the ball laterally, and I suspect Galle – the venue for both Tests – will offer very little of that. Arthur is likely to insist that is the case.
Furthermore, neither of the aforementioned pair are expected to play both matches at the start of a busy year while Moeen Ali’s positive Covid-19 test means he is unlikely to join fellow spinners Jack Leach and Dom Bess in the series opener.
As was the case in 2018 when picking up 18 wickets, much responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Leach, but he has played very little cricket in the last year and won’t have Adil Rashid for support on this tour.
Instead, former Somerset teammate Bess will share the burden and this is a big series for him and England with the future in mind. Having been backed throughout last summer when he whirled away manfully in conditions that weren’t in his favour, Bess will know he needs to stamp his mark on international cricket now presented with surfaces that are expected to offer him more assistance.
While Leach – much like the aforementioned Rashid – might not be a long-term fix, you get the sense that England’s think-tank are banking on Bess and his feisty character to be their number one spinner Down Under later in the year when his ability to play a containing role in the first innings, along with providing handy runs with his very capable batting, could prove a crucial piece of the Ashes jigsaw.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Bess is a work in progress, but I expect England to continue to back him and given Leach is as short as 6/5 for top England series bower honours, Bess looks the value play at 7/2 in what could prove to be a match in this market.
Leach might well prove a worthy favourite here, but Sri Lanka have enough left-handers in their side to keep Bess interested and I can’t believe the hosts will serve up pitches that offer the likes of Anderson, Broad, or even Mark Wood, much at all.
Fingers crossed for a good series for Bess, especially with the future in mind, but back in the here and now, Sri Lanka do look to have been underestimated by the layers in the series betting.
In their conditions, the home spinners won't be overmatched by their English contemporaries and without Stokes and Ollie Pope, I have concerns about England making enough runs to put significant pressure on their opponents.
Stokes has been England’s best batsman for a couple of years now, while Pope has shown enough already to suggest he might take over that mantle in the years to come. That responsibility will fall back onto Root’s shoulders on this tour, but he has endured a quieter time more recently while an average of 34.74 after 70 Tests tells us Jonny Bairstow is a good Test batsman, but by no means a great one. He is still young enough to take his game to the next level, of course, but is running out of chances.
In Rory Burns’ absence, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley are expected to open the batting, but a trial by spin will really test the resolve of the Warwickshire man, in particular, if he can’t turn the strike over better than he has demonstrated thus far, while debutant Dan Lawrence will ensure the top five is light on experience and pedigree.
As already discussed, Ali won’t be able to fill the all-rounder spot usually taken by Stokes, probably not Chris Woakes either, so Sam Curran might well make the starting XI for the first Test at number seven, slotting between Lawrence and Jos Buttler.
I don’t think the XI England will send onto the field on Thursday will be as strong as the one that won here two years ago, and the batting unit certainly doesn’t instil enough confidence to warrant quotes of 11/10 for the visitors to take the series.
It is worth remembering that England won every toss back in 2018, allowing them to bat first and make best use of surfaces that deteriorated as the matches wore on, and Root isn’t guaranteed to enjoy the same rub of the green this time.
The toss is so crucial in Test cricket that I usually shy away from betting in outright series markets – instead preferring to concentrate on batsman and bowler markets – but 7/2 about the hosts is too big to ignore and I’m happy to play the prices. The 8/1 available with Sky Bet for Sri Lanka to win the series 2-0 is also worth adding to the staking plan for small stakes.
My final bet of the preview is probably my strongest fancy of the series, given I expected to be looking at much shorter than the 12/1 Unibet and 888sport are offering for Buttler to finish as England’s leading series runscorer.
I’ve already suggested that this series could be something for a baptism of fire for the likes of Sibley and Crawley, and with Root’s numbers taking a steady, if not critical, downward turn in the last three years, Buttler just has to be a bet at the prices.
I wouldn’t be advising this selection were Pope and Stokes in the mix, but they aren’t, and Buttler could hardly be coming into this new Test year in any better shape having ended last summer as Player of the Series against Pakistan in what was a touchstone moment in a Test career that, up until that point, had yet to fully take off.
A brilliant, match-winning hand at Old Trafford before ending the series with a career-best 152 appears to have finally ended the debate about his spot in the side and his role as number one gloveman.
Buttler should begin 2021 in a really good place; with his status as one of Root’s most respected lieutenants firmly established and his own form and weight of recent Test runs suggesting his has finally found the right formula to be consistently successful in this form of the game.
He really ought to kick on from here, and given he performed well in Sri Lanka back in 2018 – 250 runs at 41.66 – another fruitful series for a such a good player of spin should be in the offing.
As such, 12/1 looks far too big for Buttler to prove best of an England batting line-up shorn of two of its best players and with plenty of questions to answer in these conditions. For once, Buttler isn’t the one facing them and there is every reason to think he can continue his golden run in the next couple of weeks.
Posted at 1700 GMT on 11/01/21
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