One week from today should – all being well – see me in Sri Lanka (Galle via Colombo to be precise) for my first experience of cricket (of any standard or class) in Asia as well as Ashes tickets for the Oval next September clasped in my grubby little hands before I leave the UK. Fear not, the tickets will be under lock and key and a 24 hour guard until they see the light of day next year. The papers for Lord’s won’t arrive for a few weeks yet!
So, what am I expecting in Sri Lanka? Well, based on the ODI/T20 tour so far, a lot of rain! I now have two rainproof ponchos so I should be dry – although the one which saw service at the WACA in Perth last Aussie summer is showing signs of wear and tear…not least since I tried to put my head through the arm holes much to the amusement of the locals as yet another Pommie showed signs of hopelessness!
I also expect warmer temperatures than we have in the UK at present but also very high humidity which will make it feel a lot hotter! So, I need to be armed not only with sun-screen (waterproof to meet the first expectation) but also water bottles as the ‘recommendation’ is not to drink the water from the tap, even in the hotels! But we shall see.
I expect to immerse myself in another culture, religion, another way of life etc as I go exploring between Tests (albeit on a organised tour – you can imagine it; so much to see and so little time – ‘if you look to the left you’ll see a shrine to Buddha but be quick as on the right is an elephant sanctuary and be quick or you’ll miss sight of the tea plantation’ and so forth?). But perhaps and hopefully not!
There is time between the Tests for some sensible exploration and dare I say it, I’m not expecting the Tests to each last all five days unless there are rain interruptions which – based on the forecast I can access from this distance – seem likely at least for the first Test. So I’ll need something to do when the rain does fall! I’ll need to take a good look round the book shops at the airport next weekend!
On the cricketing front, I expect a different England from the one I last saw at the Oval in September – well, I hear you say that’s like Basil Fawlty’s view of Mastermind “can’t we get you on Mastermind Sybil? The next contestant from Torquay, specialised subject ‘the bleeding obvious.” Yes, there will be no Alistair Cook but I’m in the David Lloyd camp regarding his retirement (blood his replacement as soon as he said he was retiring…no one is bigger than the game!) but there should be the nucleus of the Ashes test team in place before the end of November and definitely before the end of February as one-day World Cup fever takes over for a few months and other than a run out against new-boys Ireland in July, there’s nothing to prepare the team for the Ashes next August and don’t rely on time in the County Championship to get people into nick – there’ll probably be no four day games after the middle of May (if we’re lucky!).
But does the team/squad look like the potential Ashes side or is it designed just to win in Sri Lanka? So let’s take a look at the squad:
Root – captain; should still be in place for the Ashes unless injury prevents him or he has a disastrous loss of form (unlikely); should play well in SL as he’s reasonable against spin
Ali – is he the ‘second choice’ spinner or the next #3 or just another all rounder in a team of all rounders? His form in Australia was dire – clearly missing Stokes, as has become clear – but in England last summer was back to his normal form but needed to be dropped and get back to his county to get some form back! Should do well in SL and be part of the Ashes nucleus next summer; he should be reaching the peak of his career so 2019 test series should see the best of Moeen.
Anderson – personally I would have rested him for SL and bring him back for a couple of tests in WI. Although he says he can continue for a few more years – and yes, he has made himself into a world class bowler – he cannot stop time and the years will tell soon. His ‘previous’ in SL was far from impressive and there’s little to suggest this tour will be different – but am happy to eat my words!
Bairstow – a fine player in all conditions and seemingly all round the world. If Bairstow does well, England will do well (just like the old phrase – when Yorkshire/Surrey do well..England do well – just delete the team and decade of your choice!). Should prosper in Sri Lanka provided he recovers from injury; the Bairstow/Buttler wicketkeeper debate can wait for another time – after all I’d have Foakes in the side!
Broad – yes, a good player but I think he’s heading towards the twilight of his career and more than Anderson, is preventing a younger player from making a case for inclusion. Again previous form in SL is not glowing but one thing we can hope for…is that all the DRS reviews have been used up before he bats as he’s never out! (Wonder where he gets that from…?) Will he or should he still be around for the Ashes next summer? I think not.
Burns – unproven at international level but for a few years has been the best performing non-test playing England batsman in the county game. And he can be annoying – he has so many trigger movements that if he ever played in the same side as Steve Smith that would be a contest in a contest! A class player who deserves a good run in the side; I think he will do well and Surrey may miss him more than they think over the coming years!
Buttler – fine all rounder, making his way in Test cricket and perhaps now realises that it is the pinnacle of the game; whilst the IPL and other T20 jamborees may pay the bills, Test centuries will last longer in the memory! Should do well in SL, beyond and in the Ashes next summer
Curran S – fine prospect who is beginning to shine in the Test side (thankfully he did against India otherwise it could have been a poor summer for England); left arm bowler which is a change for England and will bring variety to the side – now and next summer. Oh, and can bat too!
Denly – another untried at Test level but picked on the back of an excellent County summer. Never quite made the grade or runs when at Middlesex but his move to Kent a few years ago has brought the benefits and him selection. I think he could be the answer to the #3 problem and I hope I’m right – if so, Kent may find next summer in Division One a struggle without him?
Jennings – the only reason he can be on this trip is to provide some form of continuity at the top of the order with Cook retiring. Experts of all persuasions have the view that his luck is running out and he needs to impress everyone and not just those who have seen him and then picked him. Ok, he made an impressive start when first picked but there’s little since – or even in between – to suggest long term success. Having written such a prophecy, he’ll prove me wrong and be a major success for years to come and I’ll gladly eat my words but we need to see results in the next month or the next off the conveyor belt of opening batsmen will be called up for the WI tour. Not someone I expect to see in England whites next summer.
Leach – a quiet county season dogged by illness and injury, he has his chance to shine in spinner favourable conditions on this tour. If he plays in the Tests it will be as the third spinner but I can’t see the England set up being that bold for that long. With Ali and Rashid already occupying the top two spin berths Jack’s chances will be limited but he will take them with both hands! Could be around next summer if either of the other two get injured.
Pope – a bright and very young prospect who needs careful handling but has the chance to develop a long and successful England career; he just needs to sort his early innings triggers out but that could be nerves. I expect great things – in Sri Lanka it will be a learning curve, growing to exploiting the bowling in WI and emerging into greatness next summer!
Rashid – I feel sorry for Adil; it was his choice to choose the contract he did with Yorkshire but when England came knocking for a test place, it put everyone in a difficult situation; to his credit he handled the situation very well and very professionally when all others (mainly in management) were losing their heads! He is a mature player having been at Yorkshire for several years now and is developing into a good quality spinner with some batting ability. He too should shine in Sri Lanka and perhaps next summer; Root needs to have more confidence in him – at times in the English summer, I gained the impression Root was just tolerating him being in the side but again Adil showed the way. I suppose it’s one of the long standing issues with Test cricket – and the England team in particular – for many years it’s been easier to get out of the side than get in it!
Stokes – in cricketing terms, on his day one of the best all rounders around. In other aspects more than enough has been written and spoken so I won’t add to the sum of human knowledge and opinion just to say that his interview (stage managed by the ECB) last week to talk about the last 12 months was just a politicians repetition of how important 2019 will be for English cricket and didn’t meet the brief of the interview as advertised. Subject to ECB meeting in December for bringing the game into disrepute and the outcome being ‘he and Hales have been punished enough already’ I expect him to be around for a long time. How he succeeds in the court of public opinion remains to be seen.
Stone – I must admit a surprise inclusion in the squad as he didn’t impress me on the occasions I’ve seen him live in the County Championship. He is quick – and quicker than most – so perhaps he’s being developed as the secret weapon of shock and awe fast bowling against the Aussies next summer to counter some/all of their attack? Who knows. I don’t expect him to feature much in Sri Lanka but more so in WI. Needs to prove worthy of his selection.
Woakes – a big disappointment last winter in Australia (but then who wasn’t and what ever became of Jake Ball – he of the ‘can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field selection at the Gabba?); his English summer was one of great progress and you don’t make a hundred at Lord’s in a Test against India without knowing a thing or two about batting but it’s his bowling which is his forte. If the selectors rotate the quicks, I expect him to have more than just the one game in November and several more come January/February in the WI. The only concern is that he is prone to injury and as one commentator said last summer ‘looks like an estate agent with the worries of the world on his shoulders’ – I expect him to grow in stature and could be an integral part of the Ashes summer to come.
Foakes – sent as a standby keeper should injury befall Buttler and Bairstow collectively. Personally I think he should have been in the squad from day 1 – if only as a fine batsman (as several seasons for Surrey have shown) but also one of the best fielders in the game at the moment. I think he’ll be carrying the drinks again but if he does get his chance…. Perhaps born at the wrong time when there are other good keeper/batsmen in the game; but it’s ever been thus for England keepers over the years!
The final point relates to who has been left behind and could well be seen in the Ashes next summer – so, whatever happened to Overton (C) (did well in Australia even when injured), Curran T (again acquitted himself well in Australia but perhaps seen as a one day specialist?), Porter (excellent in English conditions, a bit of a rabbit when it comes to batting but if next summer is a bit on the cool, damp side…?), Plunkett and Wood from a few years ago (or is it too late), and Bess (shot into the England side for Pakistan at Lord’s but then left to drift? Has something about him which bodes well for the future), Vince (again fair in Australia and a good County season but I’m not con’Vince’d, Malan (if he’s better overseas then why isn’t he there? OK, a poor English season but if you saw his century at Perth you’d know why he should be in the side!) and who’s the next opener off the taxi rank?
My forecast for a week today – other than rain – is for an XI of Burns, Jennings, Denly, Root, Buttler, Stokes, Ali, Leach, Rashid, Broad and Anderson
One thing I’m not looking forward will be the incessant chanting of the Barmy Army – one or two of their smaller battalions are amusing and only chant along in small doses but when the full regiment is in full flow for all five days! Please spare us!
And if we are spared and the rain stays away, I’m expecting a Sri Lanka series win, they are just so strong at home in their conditions and can blow sides away with their spin bowling; nonetheless I expect it to be great fun and a wonderful experience and if all the technology works, I’ll be blogging everyday – and not just cricket!