All eyes on conditions with trophy up for grabs
It was overcast and damp in Manchester on Friday, the sort of conditions that make England a force to be reckoned with in one-day cricket, but the forecast for match-day is more sunshine and less cloud. If the series to date is any guide that will give Sri Lanka a good chance of bouncing straight back from their Trent Bridge thrashing to take the one-day series, even though the momentum is with the hosts.
The four matches, which have left the series tied at 2-2, have just reinforced where these two teams' strengths lie. Under cloudy, bowler-friendly conditions, at The Oval and Trent Bridge England have demolished their opponents, led by James Anderson; on warmer - you could say proper summer days - Sri Lanka's subcontinental skills of spin and wristy batting have come to fore.
England were delighted not just by overhead conditions in Nottingham, but also the 22 yards produced by the groundsman. They may not be quite so delighted by what they get at Old Trafford, in what will be the first international since the pitch was turned 90 degrees to face north-south rather than east-west, to avoid the setting sun whenever it decides to appear.
Lancashire have only played one-day matches on the ground so far this season, but have filled their side with spin bowlers. Sometimes they have played four - Gary Keedy, Simon Kerrigan, Stephen Parry and Steven Croft - while the opposition have taken note and utilised slow bowling too. In a sense that's nothing new, Old Trafford has always been a good surface for spin - just ask Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann or Shane Warne. But the pitch is unlikely to have the bounce and carry that England so desire although Jim Cumbes, the Lancashire chief executive, thought it would go through nicely at least from one end.
"They used to have pace and carry and I think that may change the characteristics by turning the pitch around," Alastair Cook said. "Lancashire have been playing three or four spinners. It has changed a little bit.
"I think we're getting a bit too carried away with the wickets," he added. "To me it's our skill levels and we haven't been good at certain times and haven't won. I think there was a directive sent out by Hugh Morris [managing director of England cricket] at the beginning of the year suggesting what wickets we would like. At certain times squares are quite hard to change, but as an English side we always want carry on the wicket."
Neither team was able to have a look at the pitch, however, as it remained covered throughout the training sessions which were held indoors. Predicting pitches is a notoriously difficult job so decisions on playing elevens are likely to be left until the last minute, although the odds favour an unchanged England side, even if there is temptation to play Samit Patel for his left-arm spin.
The slower the better will be the case for Sri Lanka so they can make the most of their spinners, but Tillakaratne Dilshan said he still wanted a balanced attack unlike the spin-heavy combinations that can be used on the subcontinent. Regardless of what conditions confront his team on Saturday, Dilshan believes the main threat will come from Anderson who will have a home crowd supporting him.
"In the two matches with flat wickets we won easily and on two seaming wickets they won easily," Dilshan said. "Anderson is the key man and he's why we lost two matches. If we get some runs against him we have a good chance." Intriguingly, Dilshan hinted they have looked at new tactics to Anderson although he wouldn't confirm exactly what. "It might be to play some shots, you never know," he said.
This game will decide whether Sri Lanka's tour has been a success or not. They were never expected to win the Tests, but the one-day matches were a very different prospect. If they can secure their first series of the post-Muralitharan era, it will bode well for maintaining their position as a limited-overs force.
"We have played very good one-day cricket in last three or four years," Dilshan said. "We have been the runner's up in the last two World Cups. We came here as No. 3 in the world now we are No. 2. There is a good balance between senior players and youngsters."
However, Cook knows that, from his point of view, a series victory against Sri Lanka will be a superb way to start his full-time leadership. "My first two series are against India and Sri Lanka, the two World Cup finalists, and we know what strong sides they are," he said. "It's something we can win. We wanted to test ourselves against the best."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo