England hope to stave off chaos
Wednesday December 3, 2014
Start time 2.30pm local (9.00am GMT)
Whichever way you look at it, Sri Lanka have enjoyed the best of the series to date. It is not just that they have taken a 2-0 lead, but that they have been able to progress their World Cup plans. Kusal Perera has suggested that he could be the man to fill the hole at the top of the order and Thisara Perera has looked sharper than any of the England seamers; Steven Finn included. And, while Ajantha Mendis might not find other World Cup opponents quite so amenable, he has enjoyed the chance to renew his acquaintance with England's batsmen.
It was probably always a mistake to judge Sri Lanka too harshly on their thrashing in India. They were called into that series at short notice as a replacement for West Indies and were clearly not fully prepared. But equally, it might be wise for Sri Lanka not to read too much into victory over England. Far sterner tests await.
England have enjoyed a couple of aspects, too. Moeen Ali played one innings good enough to suggest he deserves an extended period at the top of the order and Ravi Bopara, oddly dropped towards the end of the English summer, has made his point eloquently upon his recall. He remains strangely under-bowled.
But in truth, England are in something approaching chaos. With their captain's run of grim form now so long - it is two-and-a-half years and more than 40 ODIs since he has made 80 - that it cannot be dismissed as a rut and potential alternative captaincy options - Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan - enduring their own struggles, England look painfully weak as a batting line-up and either unwilling or unable to try other options.
There are strong alternatives within the squad. Alex Hales remains the only England batsman to have scored a T20I century (he has a 99, too) and James Taylor is a rarity in English cricket in boasting a List A average in excess of 50. The pair of them might be excused some confusion as they remain on the periphery despite the repeated failure of senior players.
But England, having staked so much faith in Cook over recent months, are reluctant to cut him loose now. And to drop anyone else - Bell or Morgan - seems palpably unjust when Cook's own failures go uncorrected.
Whichever way you look at it, time is running out for Cook. If he is unable to score runs in the next game or two, the prospect of him being dropped (or dropping himself) looms large before the end of the series. And that would leave England searching for a new captain just at the time when they are meant to be fine-tuning their World Cup plans.
Their bowling has not impressed, either. Perhaps only one of the England seamers involved in this series can be expected to take his place in the World Cup starting XI but, at this point, none of them have made a compelling case for their retention.
But cricket wouldn't be half the captivating game it remains if it was predictable. England, two down with five to play, could snatch the series yet.
Sri Lanka WWLLL (last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
As Sri Lanka do not play Test cricket in Hambantota and he is retiring from ODIs after the World Cup, this will be the last opportunity for Kumar Sangakkara to play in this region. Hugely popular across the land, there is sure to be sadness at his farewell. In the absence of Mahela Jayawardene there will also be extra onus on him to produce a significant score. He looked to be returning to some sort of form in the second ODI.
Eoin Morgan is suggested by many as a captaincy alternative to Cook. But his own record - he has not passed 40 in his last 14 ODI innings and only reached 20 twice in his last eight - is little better and causing almost as much concern. If England are to have any chance at the World Cup or in this series, they require far better returns from Morgan.
Mahela Jayawardene misses this game for personal reasons and is likely to be replaced by Thilina Kandamby, a 32-year-old who has not played an ODI since 2011; Ashan Priyanjan, a 25-year-old who was in Sri Lanka's squad for the recent tour of India, is also an option having been called into this squad in the absence of Jayawardene.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 2 Kusal Perera, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wkt), 4 Thilina Kandamby, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Lahiru Thirimanne, 7 Jeevan Mendis, 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Dhammika Prasad, 10 Rangana Herath, 11 Shaminda Eranga
Chris Woakes missed training a couple of days before the game - he was one of a few of the England party to suffer from upset stomachs - but would have been fit to train the following day had the weather allowed. If he is deemed to have recovered his strength sufficiently, England are expected to be unchanged. Ben Stokes and Chris Jordan offer alternatives.
England (probable): 1 Moeen Ali, 2 Alastair Cook (capt), 3 Ian Bell, 4 Joe Root, 5 Eoin Morgan, 6 Jos Buttler (wkt), 7 Ravi Bopara, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Steven Finn, 10 James Tredwell, 11 Harry Gurney.
Pitch and conditions
Training was abandoned the day before the game due to rain and it could be the reserve day allocated for this game becomes relevant. The Hambantota playing area is the largest in the world - even larger than the MCG - but usually the ropes are pulled in to provide 70-yard boundaries on all sides. While the pitch has tended to be batsman-friendly in recent times, it can also offer some assistance to seam and spin bowlers and the scheduling of the game - during the rainy season - will have done little to assist the groundstaff with their preparations. The ground is also notable for a fierce crosswind that can aid spinners and make hitting boundaries on one side somewhat easier than the other.
Stats and trivia
- Michael Lumb, Alex Hales, Sam Robson and Moeen Ali: England openers who have scored centuries in international cricket this year. While Lumb has been dropped, Hales is unable to win a place in the ODI side and Robson's Test future remains uncertain.
- 275 for 7 in 45 overs, 339 for 5 and 310 for 9: the first innings scores at ODIs in Hambantota this year. England have made more than 300 in an ODI three times since April 2011.
"I feel happy with where my rhythm is at and where my bowling is at and hopefully as I go through this series I can grow into the role even more."
Steven Finn is confident his form is returning.
"I think it's a must-win game for us, because if we win tomorrow, we'll have a good chance of winning the series on the seventh."
Lahiru Thirimanne urges his side to go for the jugular.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.