Samit Patel's Sri Lankan sauna test
Samit Patel will already have come to regard Sri Lanka as his personal sauna. Instead of a simple pine-stripped room, his sauna comes with palm trees and an ocean view, but the effect will be much the same. It is here, in the sapping heat of Galle and Colombo, that Patel might be about to discover whether he has the stuff to become an England Test cricketer.
April on the west coast of Sri Lanka is the most draining of months and April is almost upon us. Humidity levels soar before the south-west monsoon, and many of Colombo's wealthier citizens head for the hills in search of relief. By the time England reach Colombo for the second Test, April will be well and truly biting.
Any England fan trying to jog around Galle Fort's ramparts is likely to be picked off the ground with a suction pump. Even those who have had a lifetime's resistance to air-con are lolling in the boutique hotels along the coast and wondering whether a little relief might be in order.
Dare England really fling Patel into such a demanding situation, where merely to raise an eyebrow can cause a rivulet of sweat to head off in a different direction? Patel is an accomplished cricketer but is he a resilient one? He has been one of England's most rounded batsmen on Asian pitches in the past year, but he has been rounded, too, in terms of body shape and a five-day Test in Sri Lanka would test his fitness levels to the utmost.
There are many ways in which England can include Patel in Galle and just as many reasons for overlooking him. Praise him as an in-form batsman with a decent method against spin, accentuate the value of his left-arm slows; if you want him badly enough he gets in the side. He could play in a team of five specialist batsmen or six. He could be preferred to Bell or Bopara, Swann or Panesar. Most persuasively, he could be the fifth-bowler insurance in a four-strong attack. In another convoluted theory about England's best XI, his fate can be linked with Tim Bresnan. It all comes down to whether Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, captain and coach, want him involved.
Arjuna Ranatunga, the most combative of Sri Lankan captains, the man who led them to their World Cup victory in 1996, would never have found favour in the disciplined, fitness-conscious world supervised by Flower, but somehow he survived the heat, often irritating England by walking his runs and positioning himself strategically in the field so that chasing the ball was a rare occurrence. Duleep Mendis, another former captain, who led Sri Lanka to their first Test series victory in 1985, was also a batsman of comfortable shape. Patel will look upon their success and find hope.
They had no embarrassment about walking their runs. England players are taught to push hard, to turn singles into twos. In Sri Lanka, in the long game, that is viewed as suicidal. The tendency is to stroll a single or bash a four. Five-day Tests are about physical survival. It might just be that Patel subconsciously knows this and has the game to suit.
But Sri Lankans are taught from birth how to preserve energy in such heat: Patel was born in Leicester. On the more rural Sri Lankan cricket grounds, spectators will look for the shade of a coconut tree. They sit in line, like Olympic rowers, so that all of them benefit from the shade provided by the trunk of the tree, and as the shade slowly moves like the hands of a clock, they move too.
Unlike Ranatunga and Mendis, batting is only part of Patel's role. If he wins a place at No. 6, it will be because his left-arm spin can help to balance the England side. England expect Test hundreds from their batsman at No. 6, not useful 30s. The demands on Patel, who has never before played a five-day match, would be never-ending. And, unlike Sri Lanka's last Test in Galle against Australia, when the pitch was underprepared in a failed attempt to help the home spinners, the groundsman, Jayananda Warnaweera, insists the match will last into the fifth day this time.
Conservationists are pressing for protection for the elephant in Sri Lanka. Pink elephants are even rarer, but they are what Tim Munton once saw bowling for England A in Colombo in the early '90s. Munton played just two Tests but he was regarded as a county workhorse at Warwickshire. After five overs his legs wobbled, he became disoriented and was laid out in the dressing room and put onto a drip. One of England's stoutest batting performances in back-to-back Tests came from Graham Thorpe in Kandy and Colombo, when Nasser Hussain's England side won in Sri Lanka in 2001. As England celebrated a series victory built on discipline and bloody-mindedness, Thorpe barely had the energy to turn on his PlayStation.
Patel is in Sri Lanka as recognition for his assertive batting in ODIs in Asia over the past year, the only batsman to have achieved that apart from Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen. He is also a little bit fitter and slimmer, although the last time it was revealed his bleep-test rating, a much-improved 12, was still slightly below the 12.5 that England normally regard as an acceptable minimum. There is no doubt, though, that his approach has improved, and that in the UAE he took two diving catches, at short extra and short midwicket, that would surely have passed him by a year earlier.
His fitness drive last winter even included some time in Australia, in a Brisbane gym run by a Thai kick-boxing champion, Shannon "Shaggy" King. He was given 15km runs in 35°C temperatures and asked to bat with a 12kg bat, more than four times the normal weight, while weighed down by a 10kg weight vest.
In Nottingham, they like to say that Patel throws right-handed, bats left-handed and eats with both hands. He will never quite lose an element of self-delusion which allows him to talk proudly of his fitness drive while stopping at the shop to buy a Mars bar. Now what he yearns to grab with both hands is a Test debut. It could be time for England to find out the truth.
Edited by Abhishek Purohit
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo