England in Sri Lanka 2012 March 25, 2012

Could Sri Lanka end England's time at the top?

These two Tests are vital for England if they want to be considered worthy No. 1s, but history is in Sri Lanka's favour

The Test rankings say England remain No. 1 - and on April 1 they will receive the cash bonus for holding that position - but it is becoming a weak grip on top spot. There is actually the chance that a few days after the cut-off the positioning at the top will change, if South Africa take the series against New Zealand, as is looking certain, and England lose by the same margin, or greater, against Sri Lanka.

So, these two Tests are vital for England if they want to be considered worthy No. 1s, rather than fleeting visitors much as South Africa were two years ago. This is the sort of series that England should be starting as favourites to win. They have a formidable bowling attack - strong enough not to be able to include Steven Finn in all likelihood - and a batting line-up where six of the top seven average over 40. But they had those same strengths before facing Pakistan in the UAE and the end result was a 3-0 whitewash.

No team has managed to win consistently away from home in recent years, which is why the top of the Test rankings remains fluid. It also needs remembering that it took even Australia a while to crack the subcontinent, the reason why their series victories in Sri Lanka in 2004 and India in 2004-05 were such celebrated triumphs.

"We have got a point to prove, we need to bounce back after those results against Pakistan but we aren't focussing on the world rankings," Andrew Strauss said. "It's of no great consequence to us, if you focus too much on that you take your eye off the game of cricket you are trying to play. Sri Lanka are a very good side, especially in their home conditions, and we've got to be very good to overcome that. That's plenty for us to focus on, the rankings will take care of themselves."

These days Sri Lanka have lost the fear-factor they brought to the field when Muttiah Muralitharan was in the team and, even in home conditions, the bowling attack does not match-up favourably against England. Whichever four bowlers Sri Lanka pick, none would play ahead of England's quartet. They have won just one Test - albeit a famous victory against South Africa in Durban - since Muralitharan's retirement and lost their most recent home series 1-0 against Australia at the start of their rebuilding phase.

Still, this will be a mighty challenge for England. Under Mahela Jayawardene, returned to the captaincy in place of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka showed heart and fight in the recent Commonwealth Bank Series, coming within 17 runs of taking it off Australia. If they can bring that same verve into the Test game they can be a force, although the job of sustaining a performance over five days rather than 100 overs is obviously tougher. But history is in their favour.

England's record in Sri Lanka is poor: three wins from 11 Test and one of those came in the inaugural meeting in 1982. They have not bowled Sri Lanka out twice on these shores since Galle in 2003. That is why what Nasser Hussain achieved here in 2000-01 was such a significant achievement. In an era before England started challenging Australia again, it was that era's greatest success, especially as they had to come from 1-0 down.

Since then contests between these two teams on Sri Lankan soil have reverted to type and consecutive 1-0 victories in 2003-04 and 2007-08 don't do justice to the home side's dominance. In the first of those, England gained huge credit for two backs-to-the-wall draws - starring such names as Chris Read, Gareth Batty and Richard Johnson - to keep the series level before being overwhelmed by an innings in Colombo.

Four years later they came within 20 minutes of saving the first Test in Kandy - during which Muttiah Muralitharan became the leading Test wicket-taker - but never came close to challenging in the next two. They were bowled out for 81 in Galle only to be saved mostly by rain, although Alastair Cook did manage an impressive second-innings hundred.

Cook's innings was the only hundred of that series for England, but that was one more than they managed in the UAE recently against Pakistan. Eoin Morgan was the batsman to pay the price by being dropped for this series but the others were given a vote of confidence, and rightly so, based on their records. Two more Tests of failure, though, and further positions will be under severe pressure.

At least during the two warm-up matches most of the top-order spent time in the middle with Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott making hundreds. Ian Bell's problems continued, however, with his three innings on tour totalling 25 runs, and he needs to show he is not regressing back to the Bell of pre-South Africa tour of 2009, since when he has evolved into a wonderful Test batsman.

Sri Lanka's batting should be the least of their concerns: Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera provide a powerful middle order and they possess the explosive qualities of Tillakaratne Dilshan at the top, while Dinesh Chandimal appears to be the future of Sri Lanka's middle order. However, they are coming into the series just days after completing three months of one-day cricket with the Asia Cup.

Failing to reach the final in Dhaka did them a favour, allowing a few extra days at home before they met up in Galle on Saturday. Yet it seems bizarre that a visiting side can have better preparation than the hosts for a Test series. That is not to say, however, that Sri Lanka can't bring an end to England's brief time at the top.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo