Ed Hawkins analyses England's squad selection for their Test tour to Sri Lanka, arguing that they are up against it no matter who they pick...
"History is against England, then. And so is the cricketing culture which will greet them in Sri Lanka. It will be a whole new ball game."
England's revamped Test squad could be forgiven for keeping expectations in proportion for the three-Test series against Sri Lanka in November. To win a match. Defeatist? Not really. The 16-men named on Friday afternoon have the burden of significant baggage, even if three of them are debutants.
England have won only four Test matches abroad in the last five years. One of those was in Asia. It was also their last success, a month shy of two years ago in Chittagong. Since then they have been beaten 10 times in 13 outings, the nadir of which being a 1-0 series loss in New Zealand in conditions which meant they should have been good for at least a draw.
Home team look a stand-out bet to win First Test
History is against England, then. And so is the cricketing culture which will greet them in Sri Lanka. It will be a whole new ball game. They will be attacked constantly from both ends by spinners on turning wickets. Australia and South Africa were beaten 3-0 and 2-0 respectively in the last two years in series which, frankly, stretched the credibility of the word 'contest'.
Even at this early stage it is hard not to reckon Sri Lanka are standout value to win the first Test at 2.3411/8. England are 2.6413/8 and the draw is 4.84/1. On the recent bias to home teams alone in Test cricket, England have a fiendish task.
Searching for an opening combination nothing new to England
It is hardly ideal that England go to one of the toughest places in the world without the experience of Alastair Cook. A revamped opening combination, though, doesn't warrant the biggest cause for doom and gloom. England are still trying to replace Andrew Strauss who retired six years ago so they are well used to the state of flux.
On the face of it, Joe Denly and Rory Burns are a solid-looking new pair at the top of the order. Denly, 32, knows his game inside out and his nine ODI appearances for England, the last of which albeit nine years ago, provide the team with something of a sage. Burns's runscoring in county cricket is hard to ignore, likewise the media campaign to get him picked. He plays for Surrey, too, which always helps.
Keaton Jennings has survived and his flat-footed approach is unlikely to be exposed on these wickets. In that regard he is un-English. Sometimes it pays to be born and raised in South Africa. He will nop doubt survive until next summer, when he will once again be tortured by the moving ball.
The concern will come later on when the ball is not as hard and the run-scoring opportunities dry up. Does the England middle order have the mettle and technical skill to counter spin? The likes of Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath took 28 wickets between them against South Africa and they are unlikely to be fazed by the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Ollie Pope, Ben Stokes or Jos Buttler. Not that England should have been replacing any of them, of course.
Same old story for English bowlers
With the ball it is the same old story. James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be expected to take wickets on slow, low surfaces with seam or swing akin to a mythical beast. Check that away record again to see how often they do it. Chris Woakes and Sam Curran are also likely to find it tough. Olly Stone, the Warwickshire pacer, is an exciting pick as a bowler who can be used in short bursts and asked to bowl as fast as possible.
As for spin, the cupboard is pretty bare. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali are fair spicks but against home batsmen who know all the tricks in the book, they also face an onerous task. Jack Leach might not get the chance to add to his one Test.
Before the Test series, England take on Sri Lanka in a five-match ODI series. It is notable at this stage for the prohibitive pricing about England. They are no better than 1.645/8 to win the first match, on October 10, which must surely rank as one of the lowest starting prices for an England team away from home against an established nation.
It is understandable, though. England, as we often say in these pages, are a terrific one-day unit whose status as the No 1 team in the world was solidified by beating India 2-1 in the summer. They should have little trouble with a Sri Lanka outfit who were dumped out of the Asia Cup, losing to Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Indeed, the sort of foibles they were guilty of in those catastrophes were what you would expect from historic England teams in Asian sub-continent conditions. Sri Lanka struggled to get the ball off stodgy, sticky squares against an army of spin.
Ordinarily we would be able to make a case for the hosts when England visit Asia but this is a much trickier. South Africa beat Sri Lanka 3-2 when it would have been easy to reckon they would be toppled considering their poor record against turn. But the truth is that the Sri Lankan short form is in a state and they have only two series wins in the last two years and also lost a five-match series against Zimbabwe.
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