The England cricket team begin their Test series against Sri Lanka this Thursday, and are set to experience another strange situation due to the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic. There will be no supporters in the grounds, something that will seem a little weird to those of us watching back home, who have become used to the English invasion of Sri Lankan grounds for Test series of the past.
The travel restrictions also mean that there will be a minimal British media presence at the grounds, with the Test Match Special radio commentary relying on TV broadcasts and taking place in studios in England. The Sky Sports commentators will be similarly sequestered in Isleworth from where their commentary will emanate. The written press will also be covering the tour from back home.
The only people allowed into the grounds apart from the players, umpires and coaching staff will be match officials and TV personnel. That creates a situation for the players that is even more isolated than the biosecure bubbles at the Rose Bowl and Old Trafford in which the series against the West Indies was conducted.
England’s previous trip abroad, to South Africa just before Christmas, saw a flurry of Covid-related anxiety after some positive tests that saw the One Day series cancelled. The virus has been present in the England camp again on this trip, with Moeen Ali testing positive upon arrival in Sri Lanka.
That does not seem to have caused the same levels of anxiety and concern within the squad this time around, however, and Moeen’s symptoms have thankfully been mild. Given that England tour India soon and they will need the player’s spin bowling that comes as a relief.
Spin will also be key to the outcome of the series against Sri Lanka, of course, and one man on whom the spotlight will be focused will be England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler. The 30-year-old has now just about sealed his spot as England’s first-choice glovesman but there are still questions about his abilities even as he continues to excel as a batsman.
Buttler will be standing up to the stumps for long periods in the matches against the Sri Lankans, and that will test his concentration as well as his skills and reflexes. The heat of Sri Lanka can sap the fittest bodies, and mistakes happen in sport when players are fatigued.
Ben Foakes is also on the tour, and he looks a more natural keeper than Buttler. He also played very well on England’s last trip to Sri Lanka in 2018. Wicketkeepers in Sri Lanka need to be sharp as the chances don’t come along very often and Foakes will be keen to step up if Buttler falters at all.
Buttler himself has welcomed the competition for his place, asserting that it is a “healthy” situation for the squad. Foakes was man of the series during England’s last visit to Sri Lanka and he will definitely be first-choice behind the stumps when the tour party moves on to India where Buttler will be rested for the last two Test Matches.;list=PLmE_RWy-Bk_RTviJlnbitkRw6fcWUYINv&index=66
Meanwhile, there are also interesting things to consider about England’s batting line-up. Jonny Bairstow, another man who has played a lot of his cricket as a wicketkeeper, is expected to return to number three in the order, while Essex’s Dan Lawrence looks set to make his debut as Englands number five.
Lawrence’s elevation to the Test ranks has been long awaited, with it being six years since he became the third-youngest player to make a century in County Championship history with his 161 for Essex against Surrey in what was only his second senior match.
England coach Chris Silverwood as the Essex second XI when the right-handed batsman was coming through the ranks at the county, something that Lawrence himself feels is helping him make the step up to the international game. He scored 46 in England’s warm-up match in Sri Lanka, so should feel confident heading into his Test Match debut.
As far as the bowling line-up goes, England have opted to rest Jofra Archer, which should see Mark Wood given a chance to show what he can do as a pace man. As ever in Asia, spin will be key to the outcome of this series, though, which is why it will be interesting to see how Dom Bess and Jack Leach perform.
For all players on both sides the circumstances will be testing, as preparation time has been curtailed and time for practice cut short. While that may mean that skills are not as sharp as they could be, the series promises plenty of entertainment.
Betway have priced England as 5/4 favourites for the First Test, which starts on Thursday in Galle. Sri Lanka are at 2/1 and the draw is priced at 11/5. England are 13/8 to take the series at Betway, with Sri Lanka priced at 14/5 and the draw at 5/4.
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