Sri Lanka A v England Lions, 1st Test, Kandy February 11, 2014

England's future goes on display

Lions aim to lift English cricket

As the majority of English cricket supporters mourn the loss of Kevin Pietersen - the stages of grief are all there: denial, anger, depression - a group of players who are actually available for the national side are about to begin perhaps the most important series of their careers.

The England development programme that has the England Lions at its summit was devised as the most efficient way to produce Test cricketers. Now it is under its greatest scrutiny as England are forced to delve deeper into their reserve stocks than ever before.

The Lions' performances in Sri Lanka, where a three four-day match series begins against Sri Lanka A on Wednesday, will of course provide only part of the evidence for Test selection in June but a strong showing in alien conditions will be a significant start.

English cricket needs cheering up from the debacle down under and this squad can provide a tonic of encouragement that the Test side can be rebuilt. The selectors need some good news too. Pietersen has been cast aside for a new generation and a new band of Test cricketers needs to be forthcoming to justify their decision. The quicker a new team is assembled the better for the management.

This tour has become the most significant Lions trip ever undertaken. England need potentially six new players for June. Some of them are in Sri Lanka.

It's a strong group. Moeen Ali is in England's World T20 squad. Scott Borthwick was with England in Australia. Four others have international experience and Sam Robson is in many observers future Test side already. The new generation is already out there, not waiting to be discovered by an ECB sleuth.

Borthwick is the latest in a line of, hitherto unsuccessful, legspinners England have tried. A Test-class leggie is a luxury few sides in the history of the game have enjoyed and Borthwick has been greedily lined up to become England's. He will find assistance in Pallekele, the venue for the opening match of this tour, and a return similar to the 4 for 25 in the first innings of the second warm-up match will turn giddy those clamouring for England's resurgence. But while a dose of excitement is no bad thing in the current climate, Borthwick needs time. In the second innings of the same match he produced 0 for 54 in 10 overs.

It is a cautionary tale that can be labelled to many of this squad. Simon Kerrigan - another candidate to succeed Graeme Swann who has been tearing up the County Championship - endured an horrendous Test debut. Jonny Bairstow - slayer of South Africa at Lord's two summers ago - struggled to provide consistent performances at international level. Chris Woakes - leading English allrounder in county cricket last season - has been exposed with ball in hand.

An asterisk can be placed against many names and they will hope to begin to scrub such doubts away here. The England team is a not so much a closed shop now but welcoming to all comers. Woakes, captain for this tour, was perfectly entitled to provide a vague answer when asked for five or six names that will be the future of England.

"We've got a good team with some experience that have played international cricket before and there's some guys that haven't played much for the Lions," Woakes said. "It's hard to single out individuals at this moment in time, but come the end of the tour, I might be able to give you a few names. It's difficult to name individuals that I can say are going to be in that Test squad come June."

Two warm-up matches in more humid Colombo have been stern preparation for the airier Kandy. They were also the first chances for Woakes to assume control of his group - his first experience of captaincy since age group cricket.

"It's been a new challenge," Woakes said. "I haven't done a great deal of it before. I'm enjoying it so far. Sometimes it's difficult when you come into these teams, it's difficult to stamp you're authority because you're here for five weeks. But we feel like we've come together as a team really well. And it will be a test in these games on the field, making decisions I don't usually make. I'm excited about it and I think I've taken the challenge up well so far."

The Lions will face a younger Sri Lankan side of whom only two have considerable international experience: Dhammika Prasad and the captain, Upul Tharanga, a veteran of 171 ODIs and 15 Tests - the last of which came in December 2007.

"This is a very important series for both sides," Tharanga said. "We have lots of youngsters. There are about nine players from the Sri Lanka A team playing with national team now and we've got most of the youngsters. Because of that, I think this is a great opportunity for all these young cricketers."

Naturally, the Sri Lankans will pose a spin threat and will include three spinners in their side. Kandy is on the verge of a drought but the outfield in Pallekele remains lush, suggesting there is enough moisture in the wicket to calm nightmares of facing a raging turner. England's seamers would certainly appreciate it too.

Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo

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