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Ford 'quietly confident' about Sri Lanka's seam attack

Graham Ford, the Sri Lanka coach, believes the team's seam attack has the experience and know-how to create an impact on the team's tour of England

Dhammika Prasad's transformation into a leader in Sri Lanka's seam attack began with his match-winning second-innings five-for in the 2014 Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

Dhammika Prasad's transformation into a leader in Sri Lanka's seam attack began with his match-winning second-innings five-for in the 2014 Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

Though sometimes billed as a team in transition, 11 of the 17 Sri Lanka players on the flight to England featured in the 2014 tour there. The first-choice opening combination from that tour is expected to take guard again, even if there has been upheaval in the interim. Angelo Mathews is still captain and a linchpin in the top order. Rangana Herath remains the top spinner.
Strangely, however, it is the pace battery that appears to provide Sri Lanka's most vivid touchstone to the 2014 tour. Dhammika Prasad, Nuwan Pradeep and Shaminda Eranga had each played key roles in the victory at Headingley, and are in the squad again. Suranga Lakmal, who had played in the 2014 ODI series before sustaining an injury, is also there. The sole newbie among the five quicks is also perhaps the team's most exciting talent, Dushmantha Chameera.
Coach Graham Ford had finished up his first stint with Sri Lanka just as Eranga, Lakmal and Pradeep were beginning to deliver defining spells. In the first Test series of his second stint, he hopes to find the Test attack much improved by age and experience.
"I think we've got a bowling group that's grown into a useful attack," Ford said ahead of the team's departure from Colombo. "They've all experienced success in English conditions. I'm quietly confident that they'll be able to work together and create pressure in English conditions.
"I hope they've improved because they've played a lot of Test cricket since my first stint. I did feel that when I was here previously, quite a lot of them were learning the art of fast bowling. Some of them were still fairly raw. They've now played a lot more cricket, and I'm sure they're more streetwise."
Eranga and Lakmal have largely been laid low with injury in 2015, but the likes of Prasad, Pradeep and Chameera have prospered - both on increasingly seamer-friendly pitches in Sri Lanka and on tours to New Zealand in successive summers. Prasad has been particularly impressive, taking 41 wickets at an average of 24.95 in 2015. His transformation into a leader in the seam attack began in England, when he claimed five wickets in the second-innings surge to victory at Headingley.
"Some of the quicks have had good success in England - they know the kind of lengths they've got to bowl," Ford said. "It is going to be crucial that they find the right length on each particular surface when we get into the Test matches. Those lengths might vary slightly. It'll be about assessing very quickly what's the right length. I think they're much more mature as cricketers."
Ford said the greatest challenge lay with Sri Lanka's relatively young batting group, which has repeatedly faltered in the past year. There was a 2-0 victory against West Indies at home in October, but Sri Lanka lost the other four Test series they played last year. On each of those occasions, the batting had been the weaker of Sri Lanka's disciplines.
"In our batting group, having lost a couple of senior players, there are some new young guys who have come in," Ford said. "They've worked extremely hard in the last few weeks. We've been fortunate enough in Colombo to train on some pitches that are similar to what we're likely to get in England. That's been pleasing to see how those younger players have been adapting to those conditions. Of course it's going to be a huge mental challenge for them, because it is going to be about grinding out big hundreds. A lot of that comes from having done it and experience."
Sri Lanka play two three-day practice matches, at Chelmsford and Leicester, before the Tests begin on May 19. Unlike in the 2014 tour, when the limited-overs cricket took place first, Sri Lanka will play in two of England's coldest Test venues in May, when they go to Leeds and Durham for the first two matches.
"Any team going to England in the early summer finds it hard," Ford said. "Especially coming from the subcontinent, it's more of an adjustment. As has been documented, it is a team in transition, so some extra challenges probably face us. But it is exciting anyway to see how the young lads step up, and to see whether they're up for international cricket and whether they want to be international cricketers for a long period of time.
"A lot of it is about the mental strength. In foreign conditions, different things are going on - crowd pressure, etc. We know that England will come hard at us and mental strength is important. I think there's some opportunity for the cricketers to show us that they are tough. In days gone by, that is what people admired about Sri Lankan cricket - they said the players were so tough mentally. Maybe there are a few question marks about that now, and it's time for us to start putting that right."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando