Ed Hawkins previews the three-match series and argues that the tourists cannot possibly be rated as favourites...
"England’s record away from home is astonishingly poor. They’ve won four of their last 26 and their last series win away was in December 2015 in South Africa"
Formidable home record
England are going to have to buck significant trends to beat Sri Lanka in a three-Test series, which starts next Tuesday at Galle.
Sri Lanka's record at home is excellent against non-Asian teams. In the last three years they have beaten West Indies, Australia and South Africa, without surrendering a game. It's played seven and won seven.
The reason for Sri Lankan dominance is simple: spin. Or rather, in the case of Australia and South Africa, a chronic inability to counter it. With England's problems against tweak as entrenched as their Australian and South Africa rivals, it is not hard to foresee a similar outcome, particular with England in a state of flux.
The retirement of Alastair Cook is a significant blow because it robs them of one of their premier players of spin, a man who has been able to score big in Asia. There are few Englishmen who have been able to do that in Asia.
It further exposes their failure to find a replacement for Andrew Strauss. It is barely believable that nobody made the position his own. With Cook now gone England have to find two openers. How long will it take them? Another six years for Strauss's? Twelve to replace both?
Still, the retirement of Rangana Herath redresses the balance somewhat. Herath, bizarrely, will quit after the first Test instead of playing all three. England must be thanking their lucky stars. For as much the touring sides in the study period have bee clueless against spin, it would be remiss not to point out that Herath was the architect of each of those teams' downfalls.
In that period Herath took 55 wickets (seven matches). As a percentage that's just shy of 41. It's a significant hole to fill.
The men charged with doing so will be Dilruwan Perera, Lakshan Sandakan and Akila Dananjaya. There are no worries about Perera's skill. The 36-year-old knows his trade and in the same period as Herath claimed 33 wickets. They were a terrible twosome.
Sandakan, a slow left-arm chinaman, has good numbers, too. He has 11 wickets in four Tests in the study period. He is ten Tests into his career, though, so he is some way off from establishing himself. This will be his chance.
As for Dananjaya, England had a good look at him on the one-day leg. He took nine wickets to top the bowler lists with an average of 19 and an economy rate of 5.3. There is no guarantee that white-ball form will translate to red-ball. Sri Lanka should be encouraged. England might be too, though.
England are poor travellers
A significant factor, as well as Herath ducking out, is the weather. The hosts would much prefer to be playing in dry, arid conditions. Fat chance. The monsoon season does not often reward spinners and we can hardly claim that it will be ragging square on dusty, crumbling surfaces.
This is a blow for those scrabbling to get with series prices of around [2.52] about Lanka based on that home record. Seam and swing may be as likely as spit and bounce. It certainly makes England's job easier.
As ever, it is the odds which provide the clarity. Should England really be the favourites at [2.42]? The loss of Cook aside, there are significant doubts about the middle order, none of which were allayed in their flattering defeat of India in the summer.
The pace department is experienced, of course, although relying on James Anderson and Stuart Broad in foreign climes is not often recommended. Indeed, Broad's place for game one is in jeopardy.
England's record away from home is astonishingly poor. They've won four of their last 26 and their last series win away was in December 2015 in South Africa. The previous victory was in 2012 in India.
If we take anything from this it should surely be that they cannot possibly be favourites. And when the jolly is the wrong way round, we have to act. A lay of England could be the smart move, in case rain washes out one of the three.
Ed Hawkins P-L
Based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate. Figures 2013-2016 on 1pt level stakes. New points system (0.5pt-5) introduced for 2017. Includes Hawk-Eye stats column p-l