Galle: Ten months after aborting their tour of Sri Lanka as the pandemic advanced, England will finally play the first Test on Thursday with the coronavirus still causing problems. Joe Root’s team, missing Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, need a convincing win in the two-match series to keep alive their hopes of reaching the World Test Championship final.
All-rounder Moeen Ali is also out of the two-Test series’ opener after testing positive for the coronavirus on arrival in the island on January 3. After England left Sri Lanka without playing a Test last March, and cut short a tour of South Africa last month over coronavirus fears, it’s been an unsettling time for the team.
But the players, living in a bio-secure ‘bubble’ in Sri Lanka, have remained united throughout, according to wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow. “Everyone’s together. That’s been a strength of the team, the unity. It’s been a real key throughout this whole period of Covid,” he said.
Bairstow, who last played a five-day match in late 2019, is expected to return to the Test team in Galle. With Moeen’s isolation only ending Wednesday, Dom Bess and Jack Leach will be the premier spin bowlers in the 18-member squad.
And the slow bowlers could be crucial. But England do have three reserve spinners in Mason Crane, Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi. “We can play plenty of spin if required to,” coach Chris Silverwood insisted.
“They are all here, so they’re available. We travel with such a large group so should any eventuality come up we have it covered. It is difficult to win here.”
Moeen and Leach were key to the touring England team that won 3-0 in Sri Lanka in 2018 and Silverwood said they have the muscle to beat the hosts on their home territory again. “It is difficult to win here. I read (Sri Lanka head coach) Mickey Arthur’s comments about our win in 2018 being in the back of their minds and wanting to get revenge for that,” said Silverwood.
“Do I believe we can win? Of course, I always believe our team can beat anyone. To me it’s about the processes, the continual progression of the team.” Uncapped Essex batsman Dan Lawrence is set for an international debut with Silverwood saying the 23-year-old is “ready” for it.
England, placed fourth in the inaugural Test championship table led by Australia, need a series win in Sri Lanka to have chance of making the final at Lord’s. Sri Lanka have just returned from a 2-0 whitewash in South Africa and must find replacements for injured batsman Dhananjaya de Silva and paceman Kasun Rajitha.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella said their absence would be a blow, but that Sri Lanka still pose a threat. England are much weakened without Stokes and Archer, who were given permission to miss this part of a tour before the team heads to India.
“I think it is going to be tough series,” said Dickwella. “Compared to the conditions in 2018 I think we have a better chance this time with no Archer, no Ben Stokes and few other players,” said the wicketkeeper-batsman. “But we don’t take it easy. We just play our normal game.”
The left-handed batsman added: “We don’t underestimate the England side but I think we have a good chance of winning this series.”