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Lions ready for up-country spin test

England Lions have arrived in Sri Lanka's northern-most cricketing outpost hoping to wrap up the unofficial Test series

Dambulla is not very significant on the Sri Lanka tourist map. Not the city centre at least. The economy here runs on vegetables - its central location used as a distribution hub, often attracting a larger crowd than the cricket ground.
Dragging a touring side to the country's northern-most cricketing outpost has more often than not seen them packed off as efficiently as the produce at market; Sri Lanka's record in ODIs here is won 24, lost nine. But England Lions arrive 1-0 up in the series and with far fewer reservations about this rural boondock than many other previous visitors. Their exceptional fitness also rules reduces enervation.
Three of their squad, James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow and the captain, Chris Woakes, played in both unofficial ODIs that England Lions won here in January 2012. Plenty have also previously toured Bangladesh. England are no longer so susceptible to cultural shock.
But they remain vulnerable to spin - 11 of the 18 wickets the Lions lost in Pallekele fell to slow bowling, a statistic that shouldn't escape the notice of Graham Gooch, batting coach of the England senior team who has joined the tour, with Sri Lanka and India England's two opponents next summer.
The wickets taken by the very impressive Tharindu Kaushal, who was included in Sri Lanka's Test squad at 19 before he had played a first-class match, and Chaturanga de Silva in the first unofficial Test were against set batsmen in the first innings - the lack of an influential individual score by a member of the top order was one of few reasons for Lions disappointment in Pallekele - and cheaper scalps in the second kept Sri Lanka A in the match. If the Lions can reduce the impact of the spinners they may thrive again but face a wicket which could crumble more than Pallekele in the hotter northern conditions.
But the location of the ground can also prove attractive to seam bowling. The "Dambulla tank" - Ibbankatuwa Webe reservoir - creates a high water level and ensures the wicket retains moisture. The seamers will be grateful for small mercies. Asia can be a graveyard for fast bowlers and, after a short workout in the first innings, the Lions were forced into third and fourth spells to complete victory in Pallekele.
In that match, they were largely superb. At only one stage in the game did a significant partnership develop - and that was on day four when the wicket was at its most straightforward to bat on. The bowlers kept their discipline, all took wickets, and were used in short spells to stay fresh, something of even greater importance in Dambulla where the mercury has climbed and humidity increased.
Woakes - six wickets in the match - and Graham Onions were incisive with the new ball and exposed Sri Lanka A's batting. James Harris, the spare seamer in the squad whose 2013 was blighted by a hamstring injury, will be keen for an opportunity here.
Madawa Warnapura's century was important for the series. His top-order colleagues only managed three double-figure scores between them but they can take significant heart from Warnapura's effort, proving this attack can be resisted in the opening exchanges. They certainly need to be. Being five down cheaply is often debilitating. The hosts are pondering a change in the top order as they seek greater stability.
England Lions will make at least one change to their XI, with Moeen Ali having left the tour ahead of England's trip to the West Indies. The beauty of his batting and excellent form will be obviously missed but he also impressed with his offspin in Pallekele, removing the two batsmen who got set in the first innings and ending the recovery act de Silva had forged with Warnupura in the second.
Simon Kerrigan is fit enough to play and showed good form with five wickets in the second warm-up match of this tour. Ollie Rayner, who was initially deputising for Kerrigan, would provide a more all-round option and a closer replacement for Moeen, whose absence could see Bairstow, who made 0 and 19 in Pallekele, move up the order.
Both Kerrigan and Rayner could be accommodated if England go with a three-man seam attack, something that was felt would weaken their primary threat in the first rubber.

Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo