Rising Sri Lanka continue to defy turbulence
On the eve of the first tour of the English summer, it would seem as if their opponents are from some far off cricketing galaxy.
Sri Lanka are so much that England are not, and vice versa. There are the contrasting philosophies to coaching: creativity subverts tradition in Sri Lanka but England's men are the better drilled, stronger, more organised. The visitors' team consists of one coach for each discipline, a strength and conditioning man and a temporary consultant - a bare bones unit by international standards and a backroom staff outsized by top counties.
In 2014, the teams could hardly have tracked more wildly disparate trajectories. Since one abysmal day in Sharjah in January, Sri Lanka have boomed almost irresistibly, taking one regional title and a global one, despite shambolic exchanges between the players and the administration. In 17 limited-overs outings this year, they have failed only once - incidentally at England's hands, on a soggy Chittagong night. England's form, has been firmly at the other end of the spectrum.
Having worked up to their first England international with a pair of bruising victories over county teams, Sri Lanka's challenge will be to stay on their high, while depriving England of clear air and endorphins. Maintain the mood in both camps; crush England in the limited-overs leg and they may gain enough ground to head into their less-favoured Test format with an unfamiliar mental edge.
That the traditional tour schedule has been upended to play Tests in June clearly suits Sri Lanka. Though the ODIs may feature the kind of swing and seam that has undone them in the past, Sri Lanka will feel they are objectively the better limited-overs side and more than capable of victory even in uncomfortable conditions.
To that end, they have the services of one of the finest proponents of white-ball swing in the world, in Nuwan Kulasekara, as well as Lasith Malinga in ominous form. Thisara Perera and Angelo Mathews provide capable support, and though the spin ranks want for Rangana Herath's experience, Sachithra Senanayake has excelled in his role as a middle-over strangler in the past six months.
The visitors are on shakier ground with the bat. There is experience at the top of the order in ODIs but around this core, younger men are still making their names. Kusal Perera will likely open alongside Tillakaratne Dilshan, but he will have bad memories of the Champions Trophy in England last year, when he produced a poor run that led to his exclusion in the next series. Dinesh Chandimal has a fine record in England but has just been relieved of his leadership roles following a year of mediocrity. Lahiru Thirimanne is a vastly improved batsman but he may not have the chance to come in as high up the order as he wishes.
The tour is an audition for Sri Lanka, not least for the interim head coach, Marvan Atapattu, who would move to the brink of locking down the permanent job if the team is successful. There is little doubt he is technically astute but to be Sri Lanka's head coach requires so much more than knowledge.
Beyond the man-management skills and tactical nous such a role requires, Atapattu will also have to form part of the buffer between the players and the whirling cesspool of administrative jockeying at home. Foreign coaches have long been preferred in Sri Lanka, in some part on the theory they are less susceptible to political pressures, and as the brother-in-law of a senior SLC official, Atapattu may have to work particularly hard to remain objective and effective.
On the field, fringe players will seek to prove they are viable choices for next year's World Cup campaign. This series is Sri Lanka's last ODI expedition outside Asia for the year and, way back in January, the coaching staff marked it out for a World Cup proving ground. Chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya recently spoke of the importance of preparing fast-bowling allrounders for that tournament and Thisara, who had also had a mediocre Champions Trophy in England, would appear to be under most scrutiny.
In this collision of cricketing worlds, both teams do have one thing in common: it is a fresh start for England, and a season of change for Sri Lanka as well, both among the coaching staff and because the seniors have begun to bid their farewells to the game. They had been indifferent to upheaval during their Asian run and, if they can transpose that success to their England summer, Sri Lanka will have confirmed their place as a rising side, spurred by regeneration.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando