England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Headingley May 17, 2016

Daunting challenge for Sri Lanka to repeat 2014 heist

Two years ago, when these sides last met, Sri Lanka were the buoyant side and England struggling. This time the roles are reversed and it will be a significant surprise if the result isn't as well

In the heady first half of 2014, Sri Lanka floated into England in the afterglow of Asia Cup and World T20 triumphs, won the limited-overs leg, then made James Anderson weep at the end of the Tests.

In the doleful first half of 2014, nursing gashes from the tri-format flagellation in Australia, England sought to launch a "new era". This promptly splintered and ran aground on Angelo Mathews' rock-of-Gibraltar forward defence.

Still, even in England's bleakest hours, they had their defenders. Not so long after they had lost to Netherlands in the World T20, a noisy ex-player was happy to announce that Sri Lanka's bowling was merely a "glorified county attack". This year, it was a former Sri Lankan cricketer who made the wild predictions. The team he selects has the "best attack in the world" Sanath Jayasuriya, said. In two years, even the delusion, it would seem, has switched feet.

Since that 2014 series, Anderson has reclaimed his snarl so completely that presently he seems more likely to produce swear words from his tear ducts, than tears. And it is England that came within a Brathwaite bat-breadth of claiming the recent World T20. England who - under the instruction of Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace, and briefly Mahela Jayawardene, all of whom have been in charge of Sri Lanka in some way - have opened with spin, batted with adventure, widened their horizons.

While they bristled with purpose, Sri Lanka have moped through some of their grimmest months this decade. The bowling has generally been heartening. The fielding and batting has not. At times, the catching has brought to mind slapstick acts at children's birthday parties. At others the top order have played like balloon animals. In Tests, good match positions have been routinely traded in for substantial losses. That dynamism that used to make them greater than the sum of their parts has slipped, because occasionally the think-tank seemed to have taken leave of some of their parts - namely, their brains.

And so it is that while Mathews' stony batting and Rangana Herath's lovable left-arm spin provide substance to this squad, many of their hopes lie with young players yet to fully bloom at the top level. How well will Kusal Mendis, who is so fresh from school the mental check between instinct and flowing cover drive has not yet taken hold, manage war-worn bowlers like Anderson and Stuart Broad? How will Dushmantha Chameera, tall and slim as a coconut tree, fare with Alastair Cook staring him down?

There are also the repeat visitors to England. Dinesh Chandimal caught fire on his first trip to England, fizzled in his second, and now has recently rediscovered his spark. Mathews will look to him to liven things up at No. 4 if the top order gets stuck.

Opener Dimuth Karunaratne had made flashy starts and got out when substantial innings beckoned in 2014. Now he seems to have the opposite dilemma, in that there are not many innings of note between towering Test scores. His partner Kaushal Silva hit twin fifties at Lord's last time, but has since gone through a worrying dip in form, and a more worrying blow to the head. His innings usually have more leaves than a Banyan tree, though, so it is hoped he could be the trunk around whom the top order drops its roots in early-summer England.

The hosts are smuggling inexperience as well, with batsman James Vince and seamer Jake Ball in contention for Test debuts. But even aside from Cook and Anderson - their most prolific Test batsman and bowler ever - there is a reassuring steadiness to their likely XI. Steven Finn, on a continued redemptive trajectory, is likely to produce the steepling bounce that so often troubles Asian sides in England. Broad's average against Sri Lanka of 46.16 is his worst against any side, but his thundering spells can decide a series in a session.

And then there is quite possibly England's best player, Joe Root, who is set to begin the series at his home ground, and finish it at Lord's, where runs stream more lavishly out of him even than abuse. The 2014 Sri Lanka side had absorbed many Root taunts through the series, then spat it all back at him on the decisive final day of that series. In a strange way, it might do Sri Lanka good if Root is mouthy again. They have in the past closed ranks and coaxed the best from themselves when a siege is on against them.

The man who played the last shot in 2014, fired the first one this time around. Anderson has suggested his side were in the running for a 3-0 triumph. Sadly, for Sri Lanka, a whitewash does not seem a complete impossibility. That has been their fate in the last two away series.

They have said in the past months and years that they are in transition. In this series, it is up to Sri Lanka to prove they are heading for happier times, and not just more months and years of "transition".

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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