In Galle a week ago, standing on the fort wall, I took a selfie with the cricket ground behind me. This is most unusual. Not the wall or the cricket ground, the selfie. Never take selfies. So distorted. Either I'm useless at photography or, well...
Anyway the point of the pic (taken after a long night on the road back from Colombo and on a morning so steamy, dumplings would have plumped up in seconds) was the pitch. Or the lack of it. For there in the distance, glowing in its emerald greenness, was the square on which England will play the first Test tomorrow. But hey, no pitch. It looked like Trent Bridge in 1981 - Hadlee, Hendrick, Rice, Cooper (Kevin) and the County Championship. Or Kingsmead a year earlier (where Transvaal were heavily beaten and Clive Rice formed the plan for the Nottinghamshire campaign) in 1980-81 - Procter, van der Bijl, Clift, Cooper (Kenny; no relation) and the Currie Cup, when matches were often won at a canter if the home side made as many as 180 in their first innings.
Come the morning, the Galle pitch will be clear-cut and easy to spot all right - pale, dry and ready for Rangana Herath to go through the gears one last time. (Eighteen hours after writing that sentence, it needs revision. The weather is miserable this Monday morning and the forecast is the same. The pitch is not yet so dry as usual.)
Herath's orthodox slow left-arm was once a little-known sideshow to Muttiah Muralitharan's genius. Then he became Sri Lanka's wizard. In 92 Test matches he has 430 wickets at 27.95, with a strike rate of 59.7. To put that in perspective, Murali took his 800 at 22.72 and struck every 55 balls; Shane Warne his 708 at 25.41 and a wicket every 57 balls. With Herath, we have to wait only four balls longer than we did with Murali, and just two balls longer than with Warney. Those two men, the best ever, knew it was a game of patience. And during the patience play, it is the batsman's mind that goes through the wringer.
Herath is 40 years old and has serious knee issues, good reasons for the imminent retirement. He has history with Galle and wants to go out in a blaze of glory on the ground that has served him well. Thus, the fellow making the pitch will not wish to let him down. England know this and have prepared for it in whatever way that is possible - given the rain lashes at their every move.
There is precious little bounce in this Galle pitch, so expect a low arm from the little master and a plethora of shouts for lbw. He runs the ball into the stumps on the angle and spins it away, or not as the case may be. This needs a straight bat in defence, courage to get near the pitch of the ball with sharp, late footwork, and an inner-belief that says "I know what you're about, matey, and I'm planning to change the script."
"This needs a straight bat in defence, courage to get near the pitch of the ball with sharp, late footwork, and an inner-belief that says "I know what you're about, matey, and I'm planning to change the script"
Of course the easy preview is to return to England's recently dreadful performances away from home, but in India and Bangladesh two years ago, the batsmen often did their bit, making scores that were competitive by surprising the opposing spinners with a flexible approach. England must find ways to take wickets too. Therefore, the balance of the side is paramount: batsmen with options, a bowling attack with variety, and good close catchers. After that, it's first pick for those with the will to resist the squawking out in the middle, the stamina to override the oppressive humidity, and an understanding that the game isn't fair.
Rory Burns has impressed in the warm-up and he catches well. He is in. Keaton Jennings has done enough too, though when he sweeps, he might consider getting lower to the ball and ensuring his bat is parallel to the ground. It will be easier to manoeuvre Herath on this pitch than it will be to assault him.
No. 3 is a problem position, funny that. After which, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are all givens. Ideally, England will want three spinners - Moeen, plus Adil Rashid and Jack Leach. It is a nice combination and much improved. This choice only leaves room for two seamers. That's fine but will they be James Anderson and Stuart Broad? What of Chris Woakes, about whom abroad there remains doubt?
All of which brings us to the potential ace in the pack - Sam Curran. The boy is five from five in an England Test match shirt. What's not to like? He bats calm and smart against all-comers but especially appears to understand spin, bowls fully pitched wicket-taking balls, and has the beating heart of a lion cub. He is the balance, and in addition, he takes some of the bowling strain off Stokes.
No seamer, or swing bowler we should say, has been more effective in these parts than Chaminda Vaas. He was no great pace but he was a great brain and a subtle changer of pace, angles and movement.
So, to the magic trick. The talk at No. 3 has been of Joe Denly or Moeen, but it's a big ask of the former and an unnecessary ask of the latter. Have Stokes at 3. He is England's next best after Root anyway and has a better chance of getting settled against the newer ball than when the spinners have taken hold and the ball is softening. Stokes has got it all, which includes organised defence, every form of attack, and above all, tremendous desire and resilience. His bowling is the joker - think racehorse not donkey - to be played when the stars are aligned but not so often otherwise. Stokes at three can be a long-term solution to a perennial problem. When Jonny Bairstow returns, England will still have the enviable middle-order strength they crave. From this distance it's a no-brainer, as long as Stokes himself is up for it. The move to No. 3 needs encouragement, not a command. Ask Root himself.
Anderson will surely play. The whisper is that Broad is not quite so certain. Probably it's Broad or Woakes - who could be another considered as a genuine allrounder. One might bet on him making more runs at No. 8 than Denly at three. This is not to diminish Denly - whose legbreaks are worthy of attention - in any way, but this will be a hardcore cricket match and the margins will define it. Woakes has a presence and recent form at Test match level. He plays spin pretty well and would approach his batting with a freer spirit than Denly, who could not possibly hope to be anything other than tight in his first Test match after all these years of dreaming.
Broad will continue to amaze. He feeds from the rumours, often finding his best when the worst is predicted. He has the skill to cut the ball, as he once did to win an Oval Test against the Australians, and if the pitch is really as dry as the Nullarbor Plain, this a useful - if not enviable - attribute. It is beyond a pity that his batting has lost direction. Had it progressed as expected after 169 at Lord's in 2010, he too would have the allrounder tag on his CV.
The selection for this match, then, is tricky. The ambition should be to embrace options rather than retreat to type. The generally inviting cricket played by Root's team during the last summer at home brought much joy. The chance to emulate such spirit and skill, the chance to grab the key moments with aggression and adventure is clear and present here in Sri Lanka. There is Herath's retirement party to crash too. It is a lip-licker of an opportunity.