Stiff test for Sri Lanka's bowlers
Sri Lanka have never won a series of at least two Tests in England, Australia or South Africa, but over the next four weeks they'll get an opportunity to start rectifying that statistic when they take on England over three Test matches. The hosts obviously start favourites after their fantastic Ashes campaign in 2010-11, but Sri Lanka have sounded a warning by winning both their warm-up games, including a superb come-from-behind victory against England Lions last week. One of the most encouraging aspects of that win was the performance of the fast bowlers - Dilhara Fernando, Thisara Perera and Nuwan Pradeep took 15 out of 18 Lions wickets, returning combined figures of 15 for 388. They, and the other fast bowlers who play, will have to maintain those kind of figures if Sri Lanka are to win the series, especially given that this is the first half of the summer in England, when conditions are most likely to favour fast bowlers and not offer so much assistance to spin, traditionally Sri Lanka's favourite suit.
Pace could also play a bigger role in Sri Lanka's campaign this time because they can no longer fall back on the wizardry of Muttiah Muralitharan. In his absence, the spin mantle will be borne by Ajantha Mendis, Rangana Herath and Suraj Ranjiv, but it's quite likely that the series result could hinge on how well Sri Lanka's inexperienced fast bowlers fare: among their frontline fast bowlers, only two - Dilhara Fernando and Farveez Maharoof - have played Tests outside the subcontinent, and their numbers aren't flattering: together they've played 18 Tests, and taken 29 wickets at an average of 62.38 runs per wicket.
In fact, the lack of incisiveness in the bowling, especially among the fast men, has been one of Sri Lanka's biggest drawbacks on overseas tours. The bowlers' inability to take wickets and restrict opposition totals has put their own batsmen under tremendous pressure almost every time they come out to bat. Sri Lanka's overall bowling average in England since 2000 is more than 45, while their fast bowlers have conceded more than 63 per wicket - both are easily the worst among all teams except Zimbabwe. With Lasith Malinga not around either to help their cause, Sri Lanka's bowlers could be severely tested over the next month.
|Team||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||Pace - wickets||Average||Strike rate|
Usually conditions in South Africa, England and Australia are more favourable for fast bowlers, but Sri Lanka's numbers don't suggest so. In all three countries, their pace bowlers concede more than 47 runs per wicket, while in most other countries they average in the 20s or 30s. What has also hurt their cause is the sheer lack of opportunities to play Tests in these countries: in the last 11 years, Sri Lanka have played only 15 Tests in Australia, England and South Africa.
|Country||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||Pace - wickets||Average||Strike rate|
The lack of matches has also hurt the batsmen, for it gives them little opportunity to acclimatise to conditions which are completely different from what they face at home. Looking at the stats of all teams in England since 2000, Sri Lanka slot in somewhere in the middle with an average of 28.10, while compared to their own record in other countries, their stats in England are fairly ordinary.
Among the batsmen in the current squad, Mahela Jayawardene is the only batsman to score a century - he has scored one in each Lord's Tests on the last two tours, and averages more than 45 in six Tests. In fact, his four innings at Lord's reads 107, 14*, 61 and 119. However, Kumar Sangakkara has been a huge disappointment, with a highest of 66 in 12 innings, and an average of 30.54, which is almost 27 fewer than his overall career average.
|Mahela Jayawardene||6||502||45.63||2/ 2|
|Tillakaratne Dilshan||3||195||32.50||0/ 2|
|Kumar Sangakkara||6||336||30.54||0/ 2|
|Thilan Samaraweera||2||17||4.25||0/ 0|
The good news for Sri Lanka, though, is that they have won Tests in England, unlike in Australia and South Africa, where they haven't won any. They won the one-off Test in 1998 on the back of outstanding performances from Sanath Jayasuriya and Muralitharan. On their most recent tour, they lost at Edgbaston, but fought back superbly to level the series at Trent Bridge, with Muralitharan again winning the Man-of-the-Match award for an 11-wicket haul. Both their wins in England have thus been engineered by Murali; in his absence, it remains to be seen who will take on the mantle of strike bowler.
|Tests||Eng won||SL won||Draw|
|In England since 2000||6||3||1||2|
England will be full of confidence coming into this series: their last series was a magnificent triumph in Australia, and they also have an outstanding home record in the last decade. Since 2000, they've lost only three home series out of 22 - once each to Australia (2001), India (2007) and South Africa (2009). During this period, their win-loss ratio at home has been 2.68 (43 wins, 16 defeats), which is third only to Australia and India.
England's batsmen were in fine form in the Ashes, and they'll want to continue that run. Among those in England's current squad, only three have played a home Test against Sri Lanka: Kevin Pietersen has enjoyed himself, with two hundreds in three matches, but Andrew Strauss only managed a highest of 55 in five innings.
|Kevin Pietersen||3||360||72.00||2/ 0|
|Alastair Cook||3||175||43.75||0/ 1|
|Andrew Strauss||3||156||31.20||0/ 1|
England's partnerships for the top five wickets, though, have almost all been productive, and that's helped them stay on top in most home Tests against Sri Lanka since 2000. The average stands for the top three wickets are all more than 60, with the average for the first wicket being 72.55, which again illustrates Sri Lanka's lack of fast-bowling firepower. On the other hand, Sri Lanka's average first-wicket stand is 23.25, with a highest of 59, which is significantly lower than England's average partnership.
|Wicket||SL - Ave stand||100/ 50 p'ships||Highest stand||Eng - Ave stand||100/ 50 p'ships||Highest stand|
|1st||23.25||0/ 1||59||72.55||1/ 6||168|
|2nd||45.54||1/ 3||109||66.55||3/ 0||202|
|3rd||54.95||2/ 4||206||62.22||2/ 2||159|
|4th||37.54||2/ 1||146||31.55||0/ 2||60|
|5th||41.81||1/ 2||125||52.62||1/ 3||173|
|6th||17.00||0/ 1||68||30.28||0/ 2||58|
|7th||17.90||0/ 0||44||26.83||0/ 0||49*|
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo