By Ned Vessey
Despite all the doom and gloom in the wider world, the end of 2020 and the first few months of 2021 have provided rich pickings for cricket fans. New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, not to mention India and Australia, have all been in action in recent weeks. There is more to come, too, as England head to the subcontinent. First, they take on Sri Lanka in two Tests, before a four-game series against India.
Both will prove challenging. While England were 3 – 0 victors the last time they took on Sri Lanka, there can be no certainties in this encounter. England last played a Test in August, and their squad is missing several key players. Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer are both rested, while Rory Burns remains at home to attend the birth of his child.
Meanwhile, Ollie Pope continues to recover from a shoulder injury. While these absences undoubtedly weaken England’s starting XI, it offers the likes of Dan Lawrence and Olly Stone a chance to prove themselves. The selection of Lawrence is a particularly exciting one, with the idiosyncratic batsman set to make his debut, slotting in at number five.
The absence of Stokes and Burns sees Zak Crawley – who will be hoping to build upon his mammoth 267 in his last Test innings – move up the order to open alongside Dom Sibley. Meanwhile, Jonny Bairstow gets another opportunity in the number three spot where he scored a century last time England toured Sri Lanka in 2018. Despite this, his selection seems something of a step backwards given he has not played a Test since 2019 and suffered a very poor run of form before that.
A more welcome return awaits Moeen Ali, currently quarantining after contracting Covid-19. Despite this, Moeen looks sure to make an appearance this winter in the spin department, alongside current incumbent Dom Bess and the popular Jack Leach.
Even if England were at full strength, the hosts would undoubtedly still prove a threat. A recent defeat by South Africa does not tell the full story, as Sri Lanka were missing several key players and were beset by injury as the series went on. The likes of Angelo Mathews will return for the England matches, slotting into a talented batting line-up featuring the solid Dimuth Karunaratne and the explosive Kusal Perera. Where Sri Lanka lack experience is in the bowling department, and England will need to rack up some substantial totals if they want to emerge victors of the series.
They will need to do the same against India in February, where they face an even sterner test. Despite the return of Burns, Stokes and Archer, England still look second favourites against Virat Kohli’s team.
Kohli, Pujara, Rahane and co. punished England the last time the two teams met in India. Big batting totals will be the order of the day for England if they want to give their spinners a fighting chance and Moeen, Leach and Bess will need to step up against India’s strong batting lineup.
The India series may well see Jos Buttler rested, which offers Ben Foakes an opportunity to build upon the impressive start to Test cricket he made two years ago. The Surrey keeper has been deeply unlucky not to feature in the England team since, but with a Test hundred already under his belt, the man often described as the best keeper in the world should grab this opportunity.
How England choose to deploy their seam bowlers over the course of these two series is another thing to look out for – expect plenty of rotation. How Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are made use of will give much away about how crucial the pair are to England’s Ashes plans. Meanwhile, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Stone and Archer will all face the challenge of adapting their games to subcontinent conditions.
The two upcoming series present England with plenty of questions. How they will be answered is going to prove fascinating.
Image: Mike Prince via Flickr