England in Sri Lanka: A hectic year ends in Australia but other Tests matter – BBC Sport

England in Sri Lanka: A hectic year ends in Australia but other Tests matter – BBC Sport

England captain Joe Root and coach Chris Silverwood
England’s most recent Test series was the 1-0 victory over Pakistan last summer
Venue: Galle Date: 14-18 January Time: 04:30 GMT
Coverage: Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Sounds and BBC Sport website. Live text commentary on BBC Sport website and app.

It is not possible for England to face a more varied year of Test cricket than the one they have in front of them.

They will likely play 17 Tests in a hectic 2021, starting against Sri Lanka, before four Tests in India, a full home summer and the small matter of the Ashes in Australia next winter.

As ever, so much focus throughout the year will be on the Ashes. The conditions they will be find down under could not be more different from those in Galle on Thursday, or in India next month, but that does not make these matches any less relevant.

It is a chance for players to establish themselves, to gain confidence in their technique, to score runs or take wickets and, most importantly, it is an opportunity for England to win matches.

It is much easier to play any sport when you are used to winning.

England won 3-0 last time they played in Sri Lanka in 2018 but, make no mistake, it is a very tall order for Joe Root’s side to win again.

Sri Lanka is one of the toughest places to play cricket. It will be roasting hot and the cricket will be alien, fiercely competitive and spin-dominated. Once the players walk on to the field it can be a very hostile environment.

Sri Lanka were dealt with easily by South Africa after Christmas but they did show some character in those two defeats. They are also battled-hardened, having played high-intensity Test cricket less than 10 days ago.

In comparison, England have not played a Test since August, have had next to no preparation and are notoriously slow starters overseas.

Somehow they have to hit the ground running and make sure they do not lose the first Test, as they have done in four of their past five away series.

Janaury: Two Tests in Sri Lanka
February-March: Four Tests in India
June: Two home Tests against New Zealand*
August-September: Five home Tests against India
November-January: Five Tests in Australia
*Yet to be confirmed

Why runs in Sri Lanka matter for the Ashes

In Asia, it is crucial to get big first-innings runs. If you win the toss you have to bat for two days – minimum.

You need batsmen who are happy ticking along at their own rate and you need resilient characters.

In the past year England look to have found two of these in Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley.

Sibley is very capable of cutting out the outside noise and playing his own game. Crawley, although young, is clearly of the right temperament and can play big innings. We saw that in his excellent 267 against Pakistan last year.

Dan Lawrence looks like he will make his debut against Sri Lanka and, from what I have seen, he is another who is capable of playing his own game.

It will be a very tough beginning but Lawrence has shown can get stuck in and bat. That is what you want in Sri Lankan and Indian conditions.

If Crawley, Sibley and Lawrence emerge from this tour having really been tested, and with runs to their name, it will not only set them up for the summer but for the winter too.

How to handle the pace attack?

I am also very interested to see what England’s management do with Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

We will get an indication early on if England are serious about those two veterans playing in Australia. They will have to be rested at some stage.

Every decision this year should not revolve around the Ashes but the first Test in Brisbane has to be in the back of the selectors’ minds. Winning the urn again is the main target this year.

Stuart won’t like me writing this but if he is serious about going to Australia for the Ashes, which I think he would love to do, he has to accept being rested and rotated.

What England tried to do with Broad last summer by leaving him out against West Indies was right – they just went about it in totally the wrong way. He should have played the first Test.

This is a big year for Mark Wood and Olly Stone too. They have to prove they are fit enough to play consistently.

If England can get to Australia and be able to pick two of Wood, Stone and Jofra Archer – along with one of Broad and Anderson – it would be the dream scenario. Then you have a blend of pace, accuracy and skill.

For now, however, I would select what I believe is my best team for the first Test in Galle. You do not want to be 1-0 down in the subcontinent and have to force the game.

Spinners will be crucial for Root

From a Sri Lanka perspective, if I was if their coach Mickey Arthur I would tell my batsmen to get after England spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach.

If they go wicketless and start to leak runs there will be real pressure on Root as captain. He will have nowhere to go. The spotlight will already be on Root, who has not scored a Test hundred since December 2019.

Bess had a good year last year. He bowled well against South Africa in Cape Town last winter and then took five wickets in Port Elizabeth.

Leach has had a rotten 14 months. He was seriously ill in New Zealand, unwell in South Africa and did not play in the summer.

Both men are tough and know each other well from their time at Somerset. They will support each other and this is a chance to play six Tests in a row and put some real pressure on the opposition batsmen.

Commentating in my pyjamas

It will be strange in Galle not seeing the ground and the old fort draped in flags and the series will also be different for us on Test Match Special.

We will be providing ball-by-ball commentary on the series but coronavirus means we will be doing so from the UK.

Commentating off the television is not an ideal situation but we were left with no choice when told we could not fly to Sri Lanka. This is a last resort.

I am used to having a summariser like Michael Vaughan, Phil Tufnell or Ebony Rainford-Brent to my right when commentating, and a scorer in Andrew Samson or Andy Zaltzman to my left.

Instead, I will be in my attic in the dark with my three spaniels, trying not to wake my wife, who has a real day job. I might even do the first session in my pyjamas.

It is going to be different but I hope people will join in so we can all do it together.

We will have a bit of fun and hopefully cheer you up when that famous theme tune plays in the early hours of Thursday mornng.

Jonathan Agnew was speaking to BBC Sport’s Matthew Henry.

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