When the cry went up in the wake of an abject T20I series: “Something must be done about Sri Lanka’s batting”, this probably wasn’t the solution that anyone had envisaged. An evening spent milling about by a bench in Durham’s Market Square for Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella and Danushka Gunathilaka has left the squad in even greater disarray than had been the case after three singularly one-sided encounters in Cardiff and Southampton.
Notwithstanding the trio’s lack of substantial contributions in those games, their banishment for the remainder of the tour means that Sri Lanka’s hopes of proving more competitive over 50 overs than 20 would appear to be slim in the extreme.
It’s not been a good week for the ECB’s bio-secure protocols – so robust (give or take Jofra Archer’s unscheduled home visit) throughout last summer’s agenda-setting response to the Covid outbreak. Already we’ve had the match referee, Phil Whitticase, test positive for the virus after discharging his duties in the T20Is, while last week’s Edgbaston pitch invasion won’t have done the sport’s lobbying for the return of full crowds many favours.
It would be nice to be able to predict a humdinging ODI series to compensate for all the off-field kerfuffle – Tuesday’s match will, after all, be the first 50-over game to have been staged in front of a paying crowd since the emotional scenes at the World Cup final, almost 24 months ago. But in all honesty, the threat of England’s bowling attack, the hunger of their heavy-hitting batters and the timidity of their now-depleted opponents would tend to guard against over-excitement.
Rewind those two years, and recall the circumstances in which England last contested an international fixture at the Riverside. It was the final World Cup group game, and a de facto quarter-final for Eoin Morgan’s men following a trio of earlier defeats – including, as a useful reminder not to get too far ahead of ourselves this week, a critical setback against the unfancied Sri Lankans at Headingley.
The Durham crowd rose to the occasion then – cheering England on to a thumping victory over New Zealand, with one of their very own, Mark Wood, settling any anxieties with four vital breakthroughs (the first of which came courtesy of his outstretched finger as Kane Williamson was run out at the non-striker’s end). Ben Stokes and Liam Plunkett, two other Durham alumni, played their parts as well, as the team was propelled into the semi-finals thanks a very home-grown bowling performance, and the rest thereafter is history.
And so here we are. The team is back in its most northern climes, but with the best will in the world, this is not the homecoming that Durham’s organisers had envisaged. Last summer’s rescheduled first T20I against Australia ought to have been the occasion to celebrate the club’s contribution to a famous national victory – but now, Stokes’ recovery from a broken finger means they won’t even get to watch their main man in action. But at least there’s Wood – in tune with his body these days, and all the more ready to bomb in at full tilt again after being rested for Saturday’s match at the Ageas Bowl.
There’s another factor set to compete for local attention too. As luck would have it, England versus Germany in the last 16 of Euro 2020 has been scheduled to kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, which is more or less when the climax of the cricket is intended to take place. The sport has had previous in this regard, of course – at Old Trafford in 2002, Alec Stewart’s century against Sri Lanka was compiled while many of the fans were out on the concourse watching England take on (and beat) Denmark in that summer’s World Cup. England, you suspect, may be extra incentivised to get this contest done and dusted in good time for kick-off.
(completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka WLLLL
In the spotlight
England’s captain, Eoin Morgan has oodles of credit in the bank in the wake of the World Cup win, but even he will concede he’s not had the greatest time of it of late. His form in T20Is – the version of the game that truly matters right now – has been ropey for some time, with a top-score of 28 in seven innings over the winter, and a strike-rate of 122.05 which won’t set the death overs alight, so these three matches may offer a useful opportunity to get back to some range-hitting form. His mood hasn’t been helped by external matters either, with his implication in the ongoing historical tweets saga, as well as Alex Hales’ irresistible form causing an endless line of questioning on that front.
Dushmantha Chameera deserved so much better than to be on the wrong end of a walloping last week. His career-best T20I figures of 4 for 17 were second only to Lasith Malinga among Sri Lankan pace bowlers, which tells one story, although even that doesn’t give the full context of a hugely impressive display – one that began with a restrictive new-ball display as Jonny Bairstow and Dawid Malan were kept honest in the Powerplay, then blossomed into a run of four wickets for six runs in his final two overs as England’s middle-order were outfoxed by his lithe and whippy pace, and his exceptional arsenal of slower balls. To be fair, there’s not a lot wrong with Sri Lanka’s bowling at present… it’s everything else about their game that is letting them down.
Pitch and conditions
The sun is set to shine, which is the first hurdle cleared. If the venue’s scores for this season’s Vitality Blast are anything to go by, then a high-scoring contest ought to be in store, with Nottinghamshire posting 195 for 5 in their victory last week, but with no team in five completed games yet scoring less than 151.
Jason Roy’s tight hamstring is set to keep him sidelined for another game, which means Dawid Malan may get a chance to open once more alongside Jonny Bairstow, after his starring role in the Southampton win. He did play in each of England’s last two ODIs in India – only his second and third caps in the format – and made a half-century in his most recent outing in Pune. Joe Root is back with the white-ball set-up after sitting out the T20Is and will surely feature at No.3, while Liam Livingstone and Sam Billings can expect to be given further game-time in the middle-order, especially in the absence of Jos Buttler – although Moeen Ali is also in the mix. Wood can expect to play in front of his home crowd, while Tom Curran may get a chance to restate his credentials alongside his brother Sam. George Garton, the latest speedster in England’s set-up, might feature at some stage but maybe not yet.
England: (possible) 1 Dawid Malan, 2 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Liam Livingstone / Moeen Ali, 6 Sam Billings, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Tom Curran, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Adil Rashid
Chaos in Sri Lanka’s camp, and all manner of upheaval in their batting ranks. Captain Kusal Perera looks set to take on three key roles, opening the batting in Gunathilaka’s absence, and resuming his keeping duties with Dickwella also on a flight home, while Pathum Nissanka is likely to join him at the top given Avishka Fernando’s quadriceps injury – although a highest score to date of 24 in six previous ODIs doesn’t promise riches. In fact, Sri Lanka could be left with a top seven in which four of their batters have played fewer than 10 ODIs. Charith Asalanka could be making his debut.
Sri Lanka: (possible) 1 Kusal Perera (capt, wk), 2 Pathum Nissanka, 3 Oshada Fernando, 4 Charith Asalanka, 5 Dhananjaya de Silva, 6 Ramesh Mendis, 7 Dasun Shanaka, 8 Wanindu Hasaranga, 9 Lakshan Sandakan/Binura Fernando, 10 Dushmantha Chameera, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
Stats and trivia
England have won eight of their previous 14 ODIs at Chester-le-Street, dating back to their maiden fixture at the venue against West Indies in 2000.
Sri Lanka, however, have won both their previous ODIs against England at the ground, by eight wickets in 2006, and by 157 runs in 2014. They also beat West Indies at the 2019 World Cup, but lost to South Africa in the same tournament for a 3-1 overall record.
If selected, Joe Root will be playing in his 150th ODI. He currently has 5962 runs at 50.10 in the format.
“We were heavy favourites for that game and we lost, so we can’t drop the ball here. We’ve got to stay on it and make sure that we’re putting in another good performance because they have got some top-class players.”
England fast bowler Mark Wood recalls England’s surprise set-back against Sri Lanka in 2019.
“Because we are in a bio-bubble there’s no way we can bring anyone from Sri Lanka. If we lose these players (Mendis, Dickwella, and Gunathilaka) it’ll become a problem for us at selection. We have no choice but to play the younger players.”
Sri Lanka’s captain Kusal Perera
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket