Captains experience conflicting fortunes
Tuesday, April 3, P Sara Oval
Start time 1000 (0530 BST)
In England terms, this Test is about one man: Andrew Strauss. England's captain has said that he has not considered resigning despite England's losing run on the subcontinent of four successive Tests and his own mediocre form which, Tests against Australia apart, has gone on for more than two years. An England victory or an innings to restate his worth is sorely overdue.
It is doubtless the case that he has not thought of resignation and neither have England's selectors yet seriously thought of forcing him to stand down. They are all observing a problem and trusting that it will go away. One of Strauss' strengths as a captain is that he is supremely confident about his rightful place at the centre of things. He can be short of runs and chided for what are seen as overly defensive tactics but even without England's position at the top of the Test rankings, he would understandably be perceived as indispensable managerial material. If he threatened to move to the Cayman Islands, it would probably persuade the government to drop the top rate of tax by another 5p.
Strauss' immediate fate might rest on a difficult selection. England need to decide whether pace or spin is their best chance of rescuing their Test credentials. Shane Warne took 11 in his one appearance here while the wicket-taking list is headed by an unsurprising name: Muttiah Muralitharan claimed 52 wickets in nine Tests. England have not played here since Sri Lanka's inaugural Test in 1982 when Derek Underwood and John Emburey combined to take 14 wickets.
Sri Lanka, by contrast, are experiencing love, second time around, for Mahela Jaywardene. After the retirement of Murali, decline seemed likely. England, comically vulnerable against spin all winter, have fired Sri Lanka's belief that taking 20 wickets in a Test remains achievable.
Sri Lanka: WLWLD
Players to watch
It would be so easy to say Strauss, but we must also look elsewhere. No matter how conducive to spin this pitch turns out to be, an England victory would probably be fired by Steve Finn's ability to transfer some of the fire he showed in the ODIs against Pakistan in the UAE into a sweltering Test arena. For Sri Lanka, Rangana Herath has achieved number one status after taking 12 wickets in Galle. Superficially, he just looks to be another solid slow left-armer with a decent cricketing brain. Are we missing something?
England's dilemma is how to replace the injured Stuart Broad and also get a third seam bowler into the side. They could variously include Bresnan and Finn for Broad and Patel (which would mean a weaker batting line-up), for Broad and Panesar (ignoring the importance of spin at this ground), or bring in Finn and retain the two-seamer approach. For Sri Lanka, Angelo Mathews returns for Dinesh Chandimal, whose reckless batting in Galle was one of Sri Lanka's less impressive features. Mathews has recovered from calf trouble but he is not expected to bowl. Chanaka Welegedara, a left-arm seamer, claimed just one wicket in Galle and has been omitted because of a strained groin.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Lahiru Thirimanne, 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Suraj Randiv, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Dhammika Prasad, 11 Suranga Lakmal.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Matt Prior (wk), 7 Samit Patel, 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steve Finn.
Pitch and conditions
The P Sara Oval groundsman, NS Silva, has said he thinks the match will go five days but England have not achieved that on their recent travels. There have been 11 results from the 15 Tests played at the venue, the last of which was in August 2010, when India chased down 257. Suraj Randiv took nine wickets in that match and spin has a good record at the ground.
Stats and trivia
- The full title of the P Sara Oval is the P Saravanamuttu Oval. It was named after Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a former civil servant and the first president of the Sri Lanka board.
- The stadium underwent a modest revamp with the addition of an air conditioned building equipped with more comfortable seating and Wi-Fi. A media room has since been added.
- There are arguably more crows seen at the P Sara Oval than any other Test ground.
- Drunken fans caused a storm in 2010 when they heckled India's 12th man Yuvraj Singh as "water boy".
- One of the most memorable fast-bowling bursts in Test history took place in a neutral Test between Pakistan and Australia in 2002 when Shoaib Akhtar dismissed Ricky Ponting, Mark Waugh and Steve Waugh in the same over.
"There are five or six teams in the world playing really good cricket now, so on any given day they can beat each other, but England have set the standards."
Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, is gleeful about the prospect of a pacy pitch
"I'm watching Bear Grylls cope with the frigid French Alps before bedtime. If it snows tomorrow in Colombo I shall be the man to turn to..."
Graeme Swann, cooped up in his Colombo hotel room, tries to keep the lighthearted mood.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo