November 29, 2007

A challenge, not a relief

Sri Lanka need to look at the England series as an opportunity to develop as a team

Bring 'em on: Sri Lanka were "streets ahead" in 2003-04, but England have lots of exciting new players this time round © Getty Images

It is a huge matter of pride that we perform as well as we can against England, especially after the Australian tour, considering that we are now playing in favourable conditions. We need to work on our shortcomings, and the best way to bounce back from the disappointment of that tour is to win Test matches. You can talk for however long you want, but at the end of the day you have to perform out in the middle. We have an opportunity now with a full-strength team - sadly without Marvan Atapattu, but I reckon this is the best team we can have.

A home series can sometimes feel like a relief when you are coming from the toughest place to play cricket in. The attitude to have is to look at the series as a bigger challenge and as an opportunity to develop as a team. To consider it a relief is not the way to go.

England have had a good record during their last two tours here, but the series win in 2000-01 and the two draws they walked away with in 2003-04 may just be a little misleading. If you go back to the series in 2000-01, it was marred by events on and off the field. The cricketing value of that series was overshadowed.

In 2003-04 we as a side were streets ahead of them. The draws at Kandy and Galle were one-sided. Sri Lanka held a massive advantage and pressed hard for victories in both cases. We never ever looked a bit like losing, while England scraped home twice with seven or eight wickets down. They were summarily defeated in Colombo inside four days. During that series we were a much better side than England.

That said, we have a good rivalry building up. We have done well in England, they have a good record here. The two sides enjoy playing each other and challenging themselves and testing themselves.

Both sides have a different make-up. When we go to England, we face predominantly pace-oriented tracks. When they come to Sri Lanka, it's all about spin. The variety of the pitches and the teams adds to the contests.

It was very creditable for England to come to Sri Lanka with a new-look side earlier this season, and turn the tables on us and beat us in the ODI series. We didn't play well at all. Our bowlers did a wonderful job but the batsmen didn't have the application to see out the 50 overs and put up totals that would provide good foundations. That was the difference between the sides: we didn't bat well at all.

But Test cricket is a completely different game. We have just come out of a tough series and the guys are raring to go. We have a much clearer direction now than we had when we played them in the one-day series.

With all the improvements in batting standards, sides coming to the subcontinent still face a massive challenge. A good-quality spinner can be quite a handful on wearing tracks. In the subcontinent you get tracks that have a lot of rough after the first three days, and then the spinners come into their own and pose a massive threat. A good spinner is as intimidating as the best fast bowlers.

The reason we see batsmen increasingly get the better of spinners these days is because the wickets have become a lot more batsman-friendly over the past two years than they used to be. The batsmen have enjoyed quite a good run and it seems the trend will continue.

England have a new-look side, but the new players are quality players. Over the past two years you have seen the kinds of Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom. The likes of Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah are different from the run-of-the-mill, orthodox English orthodox cricketers. The unorthodox cricketers who have come from abroad and different backgrounds into the English team have given them the sort of of flair they would normally not have.

Panesar will be key, but will he opt for attack or containment? © Getty Images

The batting will revolve around Paul Collingwood and Pietersen. Mathew Hoggard bowls well in these conditions, with a little bit of swing early on. He toils away, bowling slower balls, cutters, doing different things to get the batsmen out. These three are the biggest threat.

Pietersen batted well to score the two hundreds he made when we went there. I am sure Muttiah Muralitharan will enjoy the battle with him. In England there was quite a bit of luck that went Pietersen's way; Murali always did have him in trouble. It's a different day, different challenge now, on these tracks. Murali will be licking his lips looking and raring to go.

They have a quality spinner in Monty Panesar. He will be a threat on tracks that assist him, but it depends on how he wants to plan: whether he wants to be an old-fashioned spinner or just wants to cut down the runs to build pressure. It's a challenge that we as batsmen are looking forward to - to see if we can get on top of him from day one. England will look to him to bowl quite a few overs, because in these conditions the fast bowlers will bowl less that they would elsewhere. Monty will have a big role to play.

It is refreshing to see England go ahead with the tour as planned even after the bomb blasts. There have been security issues in England as well, in the past, but tours have gone ahead. Cricket is beyond politics and the best thing we can do at this moment is to play.