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May 18, 2011
Sri Lanka will step up their preparations for the first Test against England when they face a strong Lions side at Derby. It's a sign of the depth in English cricket that a formidable second team can be drawn up and they should give the tourists a good idea of their readiness for Cardiff.
Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, along with the other three players who spent an extra week at the IPL, have arrived so the visitors are now at full strength. Facing the likes of Steven Finn, Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions, who has made an impressive return to action after a career-threatening back injury, will be a good test of adjustment for them on a Derby pitch that often offers help to the pace bowlers.
Regardless of their form, however, Jayawardene and Sangakkara will line up in the Test side alongside Tillakaratne Dilshan, Tharanga Paranavitana and Thilan Samaraweera. This match will help Stuart Law, Sri Lanka's interim coach, and the selectors decide who will be the final specialist batsman - presuming that is the balance they opt for.
Against Middlesex, at Uxbridge, they went for two spinners on a flat surface but the Test attack may only include one slow bowler. Suraj Randiv, the tall offspinner, will be given a chance to press his claim after Rangana Herath and Ajantha Mendis did the job in the opening match. Herath's useful batting could edge the stakes in his favour.
That leaves the quick bowling. Dilhara Fernando is pencilled in with the new ball and Chandaka Welegedara took five wickets in the match against Middlesex. The one to watch, after a hint from Law, is Nuwan Pradeep who has been called a slightly less slingy Lasith Malinga. England's analysts, one of who was at Uxbridge, will no doubt be compiling a library of footage ahead of the Test series.
The England selectors will also be watching closely. There is a long season ahead and a pool of reserve talent will come in handy. At least one of the Lions will be appearing in Cardiff with a replacement needed for Paul Collingwood at No. 6, while there is also a pace-bowling vacancy due to Tim Bresnan's torn calf.
The contest between Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan has been billed as a shootout for the batting slot, ahead of the squad announcement on Sunday morning, but this England set-up doesn't operate in that way. They'll know who they want in the Test team. The smart money is on Bopara and plenty of things favour him. He has overcome a tricky start to the season to score 408 Championship runs with two hundreds and chip in with nine wickets for Essex, while twice turning down IPL advances.
Morgan has spent the last six weeks in India with limited success for Kolkata Knight Riders, hitting one fifty in 12 innings. He returned to the UK on Saturday and was at Uxbridge the following day netting against his Middlesex team-mates (and Angus Fraser). He'll cling to the knowledge that he was England's most recent stand-by batsman in Australia, but it's more than four months since their last Test match in Sydney and things change.
Meanwhile, a replacement for Bresnan is tough to call, but the selectors are likely to want a like-for-like option who can swing the ball so Shahzad, who played one Test against Bangladesh last year, is a strong candidate. Finn played three Ashes games but with Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett there are already two tall quicks available.
Beyond the immediate battles there is further interest from the Lions line up. James Taylor, the Leicestershire batsman, has another chance to impress, as does James Hildreth who will captain the side. One of those is likely to be in contention when England's one-day squad is selected in late June. That might also apply to Samit Patel, who has been given another chance after some harsh reminders about his fitness requirements during the winter.
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