Law braced for 'toughest deal on planet'
Stuart Law, Sri Lanka's interim coach, believes that England's Test cricketers currently pose the "toughest deal on the planet", but insists that his players have the expertise and character to put up a strong fight when the first Test in Cardiff gets underway on Thursday.
Despite being considered outsiders in English early-season conditions, Sri Lanka enter the series full of confidence after a pair of impressive victories in their warm-up matches against Middlesex at Uxbridge and England Lions at Derby, where they overcame the follow-on to win a thrilling contest by 38 runs on the final day.
They have since suffered a major setback with the news that Nuwan Pradeep, their matchwinner at Derby with 4 for 29 on the final day, is set to fly home with a knee ligament injury. However, Law was confident that his squad was sufficiently well rounded, even in the absence of the retired Muttiah Muralitharan, to pose a challenge to England's strong batting line-up.
"It seems everyone else isn't confident in our bowling, but we've played four different seamers [in the warm-ups] and won both games," he said. "Our seamers run in and hit the seam, and in England conditions that's always a bonus. Our spinners do a lot of work for Sri Lanka, and yes we haven't got Murali, but we've got good spin. Given the right conditions and the right attitude, and if they are consistent enough, yes they can take 20 wickets."
Sri Lanka will be further buoyed by the memory of their last meeting with England, in the World Cup quarter-final in Colombo two months ago, when they romped to a ten-wicket victory with more than 10 overs to spare, thanks to centuries for Upul Tharanga and the new captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan. However, Law believed that in five-day cricket, England would pose an entirely different challenge.
"I've said it openly, in the last 18 months, I believe England are the best team in Test cricket," said Law. "They've beaten teams in their own backyard and away from home as well, they are well drilled, they leave nothing to chance, they prepare well. You can't complain with the way they are going, and as an Englishman you'd be very happy after the Ashes, which is one of the biggest contests on the planet. We know we've got our work cut out, but we've not come here to roll over and die. We've come here to fight."
Injuries aside, Sri Lanka have had a difficult build-up to the Test series. There was a change-over in leadership following the resignation of Kumar Sangakkara in the aftermath of their World Cup final defeat against India, and a clash of priorities which led to several of the squad, including Sangakkara and his fellow veteran Mahela Jayawardene, missing the early part of the tour to concentrate on the IPL in India.
In the circumstances, Sri Lanka have done remarkably well to make light of such difficulties, although Law - who himself is coaching in an interim capacity following the resignation of Trevor Bayliss - said that off-field problems were part and parcel of the country's cricket.
"If you understand what goes on in Sri Lanka cricket behind the scenes you'd be amazed how well these guys play," he said. "They do have to put up with extra pressures, but this tour is a magnificent opportunity for [some] young guns to come in, stick their hands up, and say 'I want to be here for 10 or 15 years and have a great career for Sri Lanka'."
Although Law admitted that his IPL latecomers, Sangakkara and Jayawardene, had looked a bit rusty during the match in Derby, he said he could sense a sharpening of focus during the squad's practice in Cardiff on Tuesday morning. "Looking at them today their mindset has completely changed," he said. "They are preparing for the first day of battle on Thursday. They are two quality individuals, two quality players, I'd expect they'd leave no stone unturned."
Although Sri Lanka's Derby victory showed that they are not afraid of grassy wickets, the Cardiff wicket is one that could well play into the hands of a team of strokemakers who know how to make the most of flat surfaces. Two years ago, Australia posted a mammoth 674 for 6 at the same venue, and on first inspection, the 2011 pitch looks to be similarly full of runs.
"The pitch looks a belter, completely different to the nets," said Law. "It's a true batting surface as they have been down here for a long time. In Test cricket you expect to see those sorts of pitches, and with all the weather around it might not change too much. And that's what I've been trying to tell our boys. In all conditions, never give in, because you never know what's round the corner.
"We're just preparing for them to be the toughest deal on the planet at this stage," he added. "We are not underestimating one facet of their game. People are saying that certain areas of their batting line-up can be exposed, we are not seeing it that way, we are just coming up with good plans for each batsman, rather than say we are targeting this guy or that guy. If we can sniff a result, we'll try to put our foot on their throat."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo