The heat is on for Strauss and England to remain the best

The heat is on for Strauss and England to remain the best

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UPDATED:

22:08 GMT, 25 March 2012

It may 'only' be a two-Test series, crammed in between the Asia Cup and the Indian Premier League, but England’s Sri Lankan mission is crucial for the legacy of Andrew Strauss and his side.

If England really are going to progress and become one of the best Test teams, as was their stated aim last summer, they cannot afford a repeat of the batting shambles that saw them crash 3-0 to Pakistan in the UAE.

This mini-series, which began here in Galle this morning and concludes in Colombo next week, is being played for the Just Retirement Cup and the sponsors might be appropriate for Strauss if both the captain and his team flounder in the extreme heat and humidity.

Concern: Stuart Broad has an ankle problem

Concern: Stuart Broad has an ankle problem

Strauss will not be pensioned off just yet if England fail here, but he might have to start looking at his retirement policy rather than planning ahead for the back-to-back Ashes series next year with which he hopes to conclude his outstanding career.

England should beat a Sri Lanka team who have won only one Test in their last 17 since Muttiah Muralitharan retired, not least because they went into this morning’s match better prepared than their hosts.

So unprepared are Sri Lanka, after being flogged in non-stop one-day cricket for the past few months by their impoverished board, that reluctant captain Mahela Jayawardene did not know until yesterday that the decision review system will be used in this series.

On guard: Ravi Bopara with Sri Lankan security

On guard: Ravi Bopara with Sri Lankan security

Jayawardene only arrived home with his team four days ago after the Asia Cup in Bangladesh. His side should not be in any fit state to play Test cricket.

Conversely, England were so stung at being caught cold by Pakistan that Andy Flower sent an advance party to Colombo ahead of the main squad.

Every step has been taken to ensure that England are ready for one of the toughest climactic challenges in cricket. Conditions here pose just as big a threat to England as a Sri Lanka side not only shorn of Murali but also other match-winners like Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis.

Mix up: England Coach Andy Flower was mistakenly introduced as his brother Grant

Mix up: England Coach Andy Flower was mistakenly introduced as his brother Grant

England had to cope with the Sri Lankan climate when they lost here under Michael Vaughan in 2007, but that series was played in December, not at the time of the year when the searing heat and suffocating humidity are close to their most extreme.

Providing England can withstand the heat they should be too powerful, even if Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara remain two of the best batsmen in the world in their own conditions.

Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann should be a more potent spin partnership than Rangana Herath and Suraj Randiv, even if Swann’s poor form in the two warm-up wins here is a concern.

Spin king: Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar should prove more of a threat than the Sri Lanka attack

Spin king: Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar should prove more of a threat than the Sri Lanka attack

Also, with the exception of Ian Bell, the misfiring batsmen have all found form in the matches in Colombo, and even Bell should feel more at home against the orthodox spin of Herath and Randiv now Saeed Ajmal is not around to torment him.

Stuart Broad’s ankle survived the last net session, but the selectors were still pondering last night whether to hand Samit Patel his Test debut ahead of Ravi Bopara, who is unable to bowl due to a side strain. Tim Bresnan was also an option with Matt Prior promoted to six.

It was fascinating to see Flower — wrongly introduced firstly as Andy Fowler and then Grant Flower — sitting alongside Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford at a chaotic series launch.

Mentor: Sri Lanka's South African coach Graham Ford is a former coach of Kevin Pietersen

Mentor: Sri Lanka's South African coach Graham Ford is a former coach of Kevin Pietersen

South African Ford is Kevin Pietersen’s mentor.

He was the man who Pietersen wanted to replace Peter Moores as England coach rather than Flower when he staged his failed coup in 2008.

Test Match Essential

As it turned out, Pietersen was sacked as captain to be replaced by Strauss, while Moores was succeeded by Flower.

‘I first coached Kevin as a young kid and stayed in contact from there,’ confirmed Ford, who Pietersen still turns to whenever he has a fault with his game.

‘He’s got a fantastic record and has no glaring weaknesses. He seems to be playing pretty well and everybody studies the opposition pretty closely these days. I don’t think my relationship with him will be significant.’

Significant to supporters are the hugely inflated admission prices in Galle, exploiting the strong and unique worldwide support England enjoy.

Around 8,000 visiting fans are expected and it will cost the equivalent of 25 per day or more, as opposed to 5 per day when Australia were here last year. It’s clear no sport treats the paying customer as badly as cricket.

It can only be hoped that those present over the next two weeks — and many were threatening to watch from the fort overlooking the Galle ground rather than pay over the odds — see a much-improved performance from England. They should do. Weather permitting.