Stiff challenge awaits England in Sri Lanka
They may have bumped along near the bottom of the Test ratings, but England have enjoyed something of a renaissance under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher. No one should belittle their achievements, even if they were against an under strength Zimbabwean side, a woeful West Indian team and a disunited Pakistan camp. But neither should one underestimate the enormity of the task that now lies ahead in Sri Lanka.
On the surface, Sri Lanka provides an altogether more enticing prospect than the harsh environs of Pakistan: there are lazy palm-fringed beaches, fewer cultural constraints and a hospitable population. Sri Lankans retain great fondness for the English, and strenuous efforts are underway to make the tour a memorable and comfortable one for the English supporters and players alike.
However, for all the geniality and the ascetic beauty of the countryside, Sri Lanka remains an extremely demanding place to tour. There is the heat for a start, which reaches its zenith in March. There are the pitches, that will provide almost embarrassing assistance to Mutiah Muralitharan. And England will be confronted with an infinitely more cohesive and disciplined opposition.
The Sri Lankan team - despite their unusual modesty and amiable appearance - have become a fiercely competitive unit. What is more, and quite unlike their partners in Asia, they can boast real discipline. England's cricketers are not up against a loose amalgamation of mercurial ability, as was the case in Pakistan, but a cohesive unit; a team that truly understands the value of teamwork.
England last played Sri Lanka in the 1999 World Cup, brushing them aside with ease in the cool, dank opening game of the tournament. Sri Lanka, the defending champions, played like novices. The team disintegrated and factionalism polluted their ranks.
When they returned home changes were prompt. The time had come to bid farewell to the former stars. Sanath Jayasuriya was ushered into the captaincy, Dav Whatmore was persuaded to return as coach, and young talent was given an extended opportunity to blossom.
18 months along the road, Sri Lanka has enjoyed its own renaissance. Jayasuriya's egalitarian leadership, a stark contrast to the hierarchical and aloof style of Arjuna Ranatunga, has blended well with the low-key, personal, but meticulous methods of Whatmore.
The importance of teamwork and discipline was quickly drummed into the squad. Unity returned and the self-belief, so evidently absent in England, filtered back. In 2000 Sri Lanka enjoyed remarkable success in the one-day game, winning 75% of their matches, a ratio unsurpassed even by the mighty Australians.
They won Test series against Australia, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. They drew against South Africa in a series that they should have won and have only been beaten once since Jayasuriya took over the reins, by Pakistan last June.
They're currently behind in the series against South Africa. It's the most demanding test yet of the new regime and they've struggled in both the One Day games and the Tests. Whilst questions linger about Sri Lanka's ability to perform abroad on fast, bouncy pitches, no one doubts their supremacy at home.
England wisely bargained for an extended number of practice matches. They will need them to adjust to the suffocating wet heat. Pakistan was temperate by comparison. In March and April the humidity intensifies until the annual monsoon finally provides relief in May. The players will sweat relentlessly, and endless supplies of liquid will be required to stave off dehydration.
It is now accepted in Sri Lanka that there is no shame in preparing pitches to suit their own. They face similar hurdles when they travel abroad and the curators for the Tests will be expected to accommodate the requirements of management. Undoubtedly, they will request slow, spinning wickets.
Unlike the grim surfaces in Pakistan, which turned too slowly and failed to deteriorate significantly, the Sri Lanka pitches are sure to crumble, especially on the spinners' natural length. By day three, the batsmen, and indeed the wicket-keepers, will have to cope with disturbing variations in bounce.
A recent visit to Galle Interrnational Stadium, the venue for the crucial First Test, revealed a pleasantly green square. But the curator, Jayantha Warnaweera, was a spinner by trade and has mastered the art of producing pitches to suit his craft.
With a glint in his eye he stated: "All I can say at the moment is that the pitch will turn a lot. I predict that the match will last a maximum of four days. It will be similar to the last Test against South Africa." In that match the ball turned sharply and the surface had crumbled by the close of the first day's play.
The pitch in Kandy is likely to be similar. The last Test there was also against South Africa. The day before the game, the curator was forced to water it to prevent its disintegration, so parched had it become. But the weather will be a factor in Kandy, and if the match is played in overcast conditions, the fast bowlers may have a role to play.
The Final Test will be at the Sinhalese Sports Club, where there is a glimmer of encouragement for England. If the wicket is prepared properly and not starved of moisture, it will assist the faster bowlers on the first day, the spinners on the last two, and the batsmen throughout.
In Pakistan Craig White and Darren Gough troubled the batsmen with reverse swing. But in Sri Lanka the outfields are less abrasive, and reverse swing is unlikely to be so significant. The faster bowlers will have to toil long and hard.
Heat and pitches aside, England are well aware of the major hurdle: Mutiah Muralitharan. Without disrespect to the talent of Saqlain Mushtaq, Muralitharan offers an altogether more testing examination. He possesses similar command of direction and comparable variations, but spins the ball more and has greater powers of deception in the air.
The last time he bowled against England was at the Oval in 1998. He took 16 wickets. He is a better and more confident bowler now. Better even than in 1999, when he claimed 66 wickets in just nine county matches for Lancashire. He has perfected the delivery that turns away from the batsmen, and has the ability to vary the amount of spin with no appreciable change in action.
But Duncan Fletcher will have noted Muralitharan's relative weakness against left handers. Andy Flower, Lance Klusener, Gary Kirsten and Saaed Anwar have all scored heavily against him recently. Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick will be crucial to England's cause.
There are no simple answers to him. The Australians refused to play him through the off side, the South Africans opted for an off stump guard and the Pakistanis tried all-out assault. All failed to produce consistent success.
In truth each batsman must concoct his own strategy, and heed two rules. First, don't expect to score much more than two an over and, second, make sure the bad ball, if it ever comes, is punished.
Salim Malik and Mohammad Azharuddin played Muralitharan as well as anyone, but they had the kind of footwork that dancers dream of. Use of the feet will be important, but blindly charging the bowler is sure to lead to embarrassment.
England should take heart from South Africa's performance on their last visit. Thanks to the enduring South African blend of tenacity, discipline and hard work, they scraped through for a series draw. They were walloped in the First Test Match in Galle and looked set to suffer a similar fate in Kandy. However, they refused to lie down and eventually snatched a victory.
One of the chief architects of that win was Nico Boje. Similar in style to Ashley Giles, he bowled an immaculate line and length, which induced unforced errors from impatient batsmen. Giles and Croft too can play the waiting game. The ball will turn anyway, so they can concentrate on control.
Last year, England defied the expectations of a public that had become numbed by recent failures. With victory in Karachi, hopes have risen for the future. The tour of Sri Lanka offers England their stiffest test yet, and a worthy prelude to the Ashes.