Sri Lanka's tour of England, the beginning of a new era, has begun. So far everything has been, in a quintessentially English way, entirely pleasant. It was a bit chilly at Fenners, but even Sri Lanka's administrators anticipated that and the players now own thick tracksuits suitable for winter rugby training. The first game, a limber-up against a British Universities team, helped brush away some holiday-induced rustiness and having had a good workout they jumped aboard their coach and headed north up the M1 to Derbyshire, where they are staying in a refurbished castle. Lovely.
But everyone knows that life is about to get much tougher. England, after a disappointing winter abroad, Mumbai Test aside, will be desperate to relight the Ashes fervour and excitement. On home soil, in front of noisy, passionate, patriotic crowds, they will be gunning for Sri Lanka. Everyone expects a feisty start with an overload of bumpers designed to batter Sri Lanka's inexperienced top order into submission. Sri Lanka have a terrible reputation outside the subcontinent and Zimbabwe - two Test wins in 24 years - and England's fast bowlers will be given the responsibility of ensuring that it continues. Monty Panesar can wait for the Pakistanis.
Indeed, Sri Lanka are overwhelming underdogs, not just because of their poor record anywhere that has an average temperature of less than 28C, but because they have travelled without Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu, the foundation stones of their batting for the last decade. With a combined total of 190 Test matches and 11,943 runs, they will be sorely missed. Jayasuriya, 36, was arm-twisted into retirement after an ultimatum from the selectors, who were determined to inject fresh blood into the Test side, but that was before the seriousness of Atapattu's back condition - an injury that casts a dark cloud over his future - became clear.
|Sri Lanka are overwhelming underdogs, not just because of their poor record anywhere that has an average temperature of less than 28C, but because they have travelled without Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu, the foundation stones of their batting for the last decade|
In their places, with a combined experience of nine Tests and 781 runs, stand two rookies: Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandort. Not only are they filling gargantuan boots but they have utterly crucial roles, acting as vanguards, the men that must protect the middle order from the new ball. If they can't - as Pakistan showed during the second Test in Kandy earlier in the month when Sri Lanka were bowled out for a pathetic 73 in less than a session - then deep inroads can be made. At the outset, they appear the Achilles Heel of the side, the weak-link that England will be aiming to expose from the very first day at Lord's.
Tharanga, an attacking left-hander who kick-started his tour with a hundred at Fenners, has shown skill and a cool head in his first 10 months of international cricket, but there are lingering concerns, despite recent evidence that he has the mental make-up to succeed at the top-level, as to whether his technique is ready to take on top-class pace bowling on seam-friendly pitches. Vandort, meanwhile, boasts handy stats after four Tests (341 runs at 68.20), including a century in his second match which was followed by a three-year absence from the team. However, all those were against Bangladesh and opinion is sharply divided as to his value: some believe that he's been treated shabbily, a fine batsman that has been given too few chances, while others dismiss him as club-class and a lousy fielder.
The pressure is also on Sri Lanka's middle order, especially Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. For years they have been the future, but now they are the ones that must build the match-winning platforms. Both have been in fine form during the past year, especially Sangakkara, but they must do more than make pretty 50s - Sri Lanka needs big runs. They are both shouldering the responsibility of leadership as well, which adds to the burden, but the time has come for them to takeover from the de Silvas, Jayasuriyas and Atapattus.
The simple fact is that Sri Lanka's batting on this tour should be its major weakness. This is not a new phenomenon though: even with Atapattu and Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's top order has been brittle over the past couple of years. Their fielding has improved dramatically, the bowling is probably the strongest in history, both varied in type and resilient of mind, but to win they must bat out of their skins. This almost certainly means that they need sunshine on their backs and flat pitches. It would also help if Jayawardene, after nine consecutive losses of the toss, started flipping the coin or calling better. They'd also rather see Steve Harmison schedule his return for the ODI series in June.
Understandably, the Sri Lanka camp have been playing down their chances during the first week of the tour, telling the English media that while they are cherishing the prospect of smashing seven bells out of England's pace bowlers, this tour is all about the development of young players and the rebuilding of a team. A win would be nice, Tom Moody keeps stressing, but the crucial thing is that their players go back home stronger for the experience.
The problem, however, is that their supporters don't want to wait, they're desperate for success after a disappointing year. But now is the time for patience and not result-driven conclusions. Sri Lanka are in the throes of a major transition, a process that will accelerate after the 2007 World Cup, when even Chaminda Vaas might join Jayasuriya and Atapattu in retirement. Occasional defeats will unfortunately be inevitable over the coming year as these stalwarts, cricketers with vast experience and world-class skills, depart. Instant success is an impossible dream. Sri Lanka have the ability to compete if everything clicks, but they're faced with a mountainous challenge.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent