England will head into the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle not only undercooked but positively rare after less than two full days’ match practice.
It is a concern given their last Test against Pakistan in August was almost six months ago.
But a combination of Covid and a packed winter that sees Joe Root’s team head to India for four Tests immediately after this two-match series means just a sole two-day intra-squad warm-up match was scheduled at the start of this tour.
Day one took place on Friday, with Team Root facing off against Team Buttler in Hambantota.
With bad weather forecast on Saturday, England decided to play 50 overs per side. Of the batsman expected to feature in the first Test, Root, who made an unbeaten 74, Dan Lawrence, undefeated on 46 during a 95-run stand with his captain, and Zak Crawley, who also made 46, had valuable time in the middle. Spinner Dom Bess, bowling 16 overs for one wicket, got the most out of the exercise for Team Buttler.
Sri Lanka vs England: Dates and how to watch in UK
- January 14-18 – First Test: Live from 4am GMT on Sky Sports Cricket & Main Event (From 4.25am Days 2-5)
- January 22-26 – Second Test: Live from 4am on Sky Sports Cricket & Main Event (From 4.25am Days 2-5)
But the rest of England’s expected top six in Galle – Dominic Sibley, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler – made just six runs between them as Team Buttler collapsed to 37 for five.
25.1-11-45-10 v 🇱🇰 in 2016 🗓
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) January 9, 2021
Sibley then batted again, making 18 not out, but Ollie Pope was the standout performer with an unbeaten 58.
Pope is working his way back from a serious shoulder injury and is not part of the squad in Sri Lanka but his performance was extremely encouraging ahead of his expected return in India.
England Men’s Test Squad vs Sri Lanka
Joe Root (Yorkshire) (captain), Moeen Ali* (Worcestershire), James Anderson (Lancashire), Jonathan Bairstow (Yorkshire), Dom Bess (Yorkshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Jos Buttler (Lancashire), Zak Crawley (Kent), Sam Curran (Surrey), Ben Foakes (Surrey), Dan Lawrence (Essex), Jack Leach (Somerset), Dom Sibley (Warwickshire), Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire), Mark Wood (Durham)
*Moeen Ali is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 and is expected to rejoin the squad on Wednesday
Everyone else under consideration for Galle will get another chance to blow away the cobwebs on Saturday but the pretence of an actual match has been dropped by England, who confirmed “day two” will be a middle practice with the spinners bowling the majority of the overs.
Given rain is expected to hit halfway through the day, it is the best way to ensure everyone gets as much time in the middle as possible before the series starts on Thursday.
Even so, the lack of preparation time baked into the schedule will make things tough against a Sri Lanka side who are coming straight off a two-Test series in South Africa.
Indeed, this will be the least prepared England side for an overseas Test series in living memory.
The only previous occasion they didn’t have a proper warm-up match was in India in 2016 – but back then they had two Tests in Bangladesh immediately beforehand.
The number of tour matches has been cut markedly in recent years. Two warm-up games are now the norm for England before most overseas series bar the Ashes. But the lack of preparation time on this tour is unprecedented.
The quality of preparation is equally important to the quantity and sadly England seem to be lacking both in Sri Lanka after they were confronted yesterday by a seaming green top in Hambantota – a world away from the turning pitch they are expecting in Galle.
One of the other big challenges of playing in Sri Lanka is the heat. Such is the humidity, England’s players, weighed regularly to ensure they are taking on enough fluids, are losing around 1 kilogram a session.
A lack of preparation not only risks bad results but injury too – particularly for the seamers.
Bess, though, brushed off concerns about the abbreviated lead-up to this series, saying: “A lot of this is mental, getting back into it. Once you get your mindset right, I genuinely believe you are halfway there. I don’t see it as a big problem.”
There was good news for England off the pitch on Friday when they returned a full set of negative results from the latest round of Covid tests. Moeen Ali, who tested positive last Sunday, is still self-isolating at the team hotel but is expected to rejoin the squad on Wednesday. Chris Woakes, a close contact of Moeen, will finish his self-isolation period on Saturday.