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Tour and tournament reports

Sri Lanka vs England in 2019-20

A review of Sri Lanka vs England, 2019-20

Rory Dollard
Matt Parkinson has a laugh during England's opening tour match in Sri Lanka, SLC Board President's XI v England, Katunayake, March 08, 2020

Matt Parkinson during England's opening tour match in Sri Lanka  •  Getty Images

On departure for Sri Lanka, Joe Root described the unfolding outbreak of coronavirus as "an evolving situation", which would be dealt with - initially, at least - by banning handshakes. Yet it soon became clear that circumstances were not so much evolving as spiralling out of control, and would require considerably more than the introduction of fist-bumps. Little more than a week later, the World Health Organisation decreed a pandemic; within 72 hours, England were flying home. The tour lasted 12 days, five taken up by cricket, and ended abruptly when Root shuttled a message from player to player at drinks on the second afternoon of the four-day game with a Board President's XI at the P. Sara Oval in Colombo.
Having just concluded a phone call on the boundary with ECB managing director of cricket Ashley Giles and chief executive Tom Harrison, who had been leading intensive discussions back at Lord's, Root was passing on the news that the match was being abandoned, and the tour postponed. The decision had been announced a couple of minutes earlier, leaving leg-spinner Matt Parkinson to send down the final over, unaware the tour had already been scrubbed from the calendar. Little did he, or anyone, know quite how long it would be before the next delivery was sent down by an England bowler.
The travelling party had arrived in Sri Lanka fully briefed by their doctor, Gurjit Bhogal, who issued immunity packs containing hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes and throat spray. Meanwhile, the presence of thermal-imaging scanners at the airport, malls and hotels was an early sign this was not business as usual. Yet, at that stage, Sri Lanka remained virtually untouched by Covid-19, and the players were bothered more by the closure of the Table One restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel on Colombo's Galle Face: it had been a firm favourite during England's previous tour, in late 2018, but was now under reconstruction after being targeted by suicide bombers during the attacks of Easter 2019.
Briefly, the most pressing issues were professional matters. Offering 60 points apiece, the scheduled Tests in Galle and Colombo represented glittering prizes in the World Test Championship. Much, though, had changed since England's 3-0 triumph here 16 months earlier. Both sides had new coaches: Chris Silverwood and Mickey Arthur. Meanwhile, spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, who between them had accounted for half the 60 wickets England took in the whitewash, were watching from afar. Ali was continuing a curious hiatus from Test cricket, while Rashid's ongoing shoulder problem had nudged him further towards limited-overs specialism.
Jack Leach was primed to take the lead, a precarious plan given he had been fighting off a calf problem. He also had better reason than most to fear infection, because of a recent brush with sepsis and a compromised immune system brought about by treatment for Crohn's disease. He was backed by his puckish Somerset team-mate, Dom Bess, and Lancashire's uncapped Parkinson. It was a greener unit than the one Leach had joined two years earlier.
England's first warm-up, in Katunayake, was both useful workout and red herring. They managed four half-centuries, and acclimatised in the heat, but the pitch was suspiciously grassy, and there was a prevalence of seam in the opposition ranks. Despite that, Parkinson and Bess shared figures of seven for 122. It was around this time that England became early adopters of social distancing, media interactions taking place with a strict two-metre buffer zone. For at least two days, that was enforced by a chunky blue table, sourced at short notice from the pavilion. Fans due to join the tour in Galle were informed that no selfies or autographs would be possible, which played firmly against type for a friendly team, though the warning was soon rendered irrelevant.
On day one of the final warm-up, the increasingly impressive Zak Crawley made an assured hundred, before Root and Ollie Pope cashed in. But, behind the scenes, things had escalated. With worldwide infections growing exponentially, and high-profile sporting events being cancelled on an hourly basis, a heavy shadow was falling.
England lost their last seven wickets in a rush on the second day, with Root later explaining that concerns over the welfare of the players' families back home, and a desire to be reunited with them, had become an overwhelming distraction. An advance look at what to expect from Sri Lanka's quarantine arrangements also had an unsettling effect. By the time Arthur abandoned a scouting mission to attend emergency talks with the Sri Lankan board, it was only a matter of time. Soon, the teams were shaking hands - or bumping fists - and heading towards an uncertain future.