A new Test of resolve after T20 hiatus
May 19-23, 2016
Start time 11am local (1000 GMT)
After a three-month break, in which the upstart T20 has held court, Test cricket is back. We hope you have a good appetite. In late February, Brendon McCullum signed off his international career by slamming the fastest-ever Test century in Christchurch. What does Headingley, one of England's most-storied grounds, have in store?
There was an almighty tale to be told the last time Sri Lanka were in Yorkshire, England's cricketing heartland but not one which bestows easy favours on the home team. Angelo Mathews' masterful, career-best 160 helped set up a dramatic victory, spearheaded by Dhammika Prasad's 5 for 50 and sealed from the penultimate ball of a pulsating match. Those Headingley heroics secured Sri Lanka's first (multi-Test) series win in England, as well as a clean sweep in all three formats on their 2014 tour.
As Sri Lanka's players cavorted, and James Anderson shed a tear, England were left contemplating another fresh low. Much has changed since then. Alastair Cook, his face set grimly against the wind and rain, slowly turned around the listing vessel under his command, heaving the ship's wheel with all his might. Two years on and England are sailing with the breeze at their backs again, negotiating some choppy waters to record significant wins over Australia and South Africa in their last three series. Cook himself is about to crest 10,000 Test runs, uncharted territory for an Englishman.
That doesn't mean they can't be knocked off course again, however. Headingley was again the scene of an England defeat last summer, as New Zealand squared the two-match series, and it is the venue where they have had least success over recent years. The decision to retain Alex Hales and Nick Compton in the top three, after poor and indifferent returns respectively in South Africa, gives Sri Lanka a couple of obvious pressure points to probe, while there will also be a debutant in the top five, due to James Taylor's forced retirement.
But Sri Lanka have their own areas of concern and it would be a truly remarkable achievement if they were to repeat the feats of 2014. The squad has not changed much but Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene will only contribute from the sidelines - they tallied 516 runs in two Tests last time - while only Mathews and Rangana Herath have more than 50 caps. Prasad has been ruled out of the first Test, and Shaminda Eranga has not played in 18 months; Dushmantha Chameera's pace will catch the eye but he has to learn to catch the edge in conditions of which he has little knowledge.
England will hope that this all amounts to a perfect storm for them. Carlos Brathwaite rained on their World T20 parade but international cricket rarely stops moving and series wins over Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer would mean they hold all nine Test trophies - the first team to do so since Australia in 2008 and giving further heft to their status as a coming team under Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace. As if to further chill the Sri Lankans, the weather in Leeds has become decidedly mucky. Test rewards don't come easily and it is time for these two teams to get their hands dirty again.
England: LWDWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LLWWL
In the spotlight
Stepping in to the spot sadly vacated by Taylor is the elegant, unflappable Hampshire batsman James Vince. Marked out as a future international since being compared to Michael Vaughan as an 18-year-old, Vince's cover drive ought to be classified as an addictive substance but he has learned that there are times when he must overcome his urges to succeed, as a gutsy hundred against Yorkshire demonstrated last month. That innings won over the selectors and he will be back on the same ground looking to prove himself the man to shore up England's slightly mercurial batting order at No. 5.
Big Foot would have a job filling Sangakkara's boots but it seems like that is just what Kusal Mendis will be asked to do. Experiments with Upul Tharanga, Udara Jayasundera and Lahiru Thirimanne at No. 3 have all been short-lived and Mendis, who made his debut there last year before opening the batting in New Zealand, has had an encouraging start to the tour, with fifties against Essex and Leicestershire. Sangakkara has said he believes the 21-year-old former Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year will be "a very good player as the years go by"; Mathews must be hoping that the future isn't all that far off.
Alastair Cook confirmed his XI on Wednesday and there are just two changes to the England team that was roundly thumped in Centurion at the end of the South Africa series, with Vince making his Test introduction and Steven Finn fit to reclaim his place from Chris Woakes. That means no debut for Nottinghamshire's highly rated seamer Jake Ball.
England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Nick Compton, 4 Joe Root, 5 James Vince, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Steven Finn, 11 James Anderson
The major question marks for Sri Lanka hover over No. 7 and the make-up of the pace attack. Kaushal Silva will return to opener, after missing the New Zealand tour, while Dinesh Chandimal looks likely to keep the gloves and bat four. Dasun Shanaka's century against Leicestershire, and his ability to bowl seam-up, may win him a Test debut in the allrounder's spot; Prasad's injury reduces their bowling options, with the four other seamers in the party having played once each so far, to underwhelming effect.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Kaushal Silva, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Milinda Siriwardana, 7 Dasun Shanaka, 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Dushmantha Chameera, 10 Shaminda Eranga/Nuwan Pradeep 11 Suranga Lakmal
Pitch and conditions
Headingley is likely to be as capricious as ever over the next few days, with rain showers set to break up play while providing longed-for cloud cover for the bowlers. The pitch had a green tinge to it one day out but, if the sun shines, it should still be good to bat on, as Root and Bairstow proved during their record-breaking 372-stand during the last Championship match held there.
Stats and trivia
- Alastair Cook needs 36 runs to become the 12th player - and first Englishman - to 10,000 in Tests. If he gets there in this Test, he will be the youngest to do so.
- England's only victory in their last six Tests at Headingley came in 2013 against New Zealand. They have lost four and drawn one.
- Rangana Herath needs three wickets to become the third Sri Lankan to 300 in Tests.
- If Sri Lanka's last tour had been played using the proposed multiformat points system, they would have won 14-6 (with four points for a Test win, two for a draw, two for a limited-overs win).
"Sri Lanka have got a history of punching above their weight and are really, really competitive, no matter what's gone before."
Alastair Cook suggests he won't be taking the opposition lightly
"When you have 20-odd thousand runs in your team it is a great advantage, but unfortunately we don't have them any more."
Angelo Mathews re-states his position on the Sanga-Mahela exodus.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick