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The Quest For Three In a Row – England’s Test Tour of Sri Lanka


England have won their last two bilateral men’s Test series versus Sri Lanka and are set to face off in two five-day matches at Galle International Stadium this month.  It promises to be a challenging 12 months for Joe Root’s side, who also play series at home and away against India and then the Ashes in Australia starting in November. We’ve unpacked what the data says about England’s chances against Sri Lanka as the touring side look to record three successive victories against them for the first time.

By: Dan Atherton

It is looking as if we are going to get the men’s Test series between Sri Lanka and England, a set of games which were originally due to take place last Spring but were cancelled as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were being felt internationally. The decision was made during England’s final warm-up game that the tour was to end with immediate effect, with a mutual understanding that Joe Root’s side would return as soon as conditions allowed a red-ball series to go ahead.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka come into this series having mustered only one win in their last seven men’s Test matches (D2 L4). Furthermore, they have just suffered a 2-0 series defeat against the Proteas in South Africa – losing the opener by an innings margin before slumping to a 10-wicket loss in the second match of the series. There is very little in the way of time to get over such devastating defeats, with the second and final Test in that series only ending earlier this month.

Sri Lanka will do their best to move on and they will try to find some positivity in the fact they’re playing on home soil for the first time in men’s Test cricket since August 2019, almost a year and a half ago. They did slump to an innings defeat against the Black Caps on that occasion, however. It is also important to note that Sri Lanka were severely hampered on the injury front during the recent men’s Test series against the Proteas – they were without the likes of Dhananjaya de Silva, Kasun Rajitha, Lahiru Kumara, Dinesh Chandimal and Suranga Lakmal – all big names.

Suranga Lakmal will be crucial to Sri Lanka’s fortunes during this upcoming series – if he manages to shake off his injury issues. Only one seamer, the great Chaminda Vaas (355), has picked up more wickets in men’s Test cricket for Sri Lanka than Lakmal (151).

The 33-year-old has been the premier bowler for the Lions over the last two years, as his numbers attest. Of the six bowlers to register 10 or more scalps in men’s Test cricket for Sri Lanka since the start of 2019, only Lakmal has managed to record an average of sub-30. As well as taking his wickets at frequent intervals, he has also proven to be a wily player, capable of holding an end and keeping things tight – he’s produced remarkable returns on the economy front during that period.

What is important to point out, however, is that he’s difficult to depend on. Lakmal has only been involved in two Tests since September 2019 but when he has been on hand, he has produced for his country. That all being said, he will be keen to improve upon his underwhelming home record versus England – he’s only claimed five wickets in five matches in the format in Sri Lanka.

The Dimuth Karunaratne era began with three successive victories for Sri Lanka (February-August 2019) but it’s been far from plain sailing for the Lions under his stewardship of late. They have only been able to record one victory in the seven Test outings since that great start (D2 L4).

When it comes to his batting, he’s been a steady source of runs at the top of the order in recent years, highlighted by the fact that only South Africa’s Dean Elgar (2,615) has clocked up more as an opening batsman in men’s Tests since the start of 2017 than the Sri Lankan (2,516). Karunaratne has logged 138 of those from leg glances, only Steve Smith has more from that shot during that period and only been dismissed twice when playing that stroke. So, it should come as little surprise that only one left-hander (among those to register 1,000 men’s Test runs since 2017) has recorded a higher share of their runs on the leg side than the Sri Lankan skipper (Henry Nicholls).

Men’s Test Since 2017: Left-Hand Batsmen (1,000+ Runs):

BatsmanTeamLeg Side Run %
Henry NichollsNew Zealand60.2
Dimuth KarunaratneSri Lanka58.0
Ben StokesEngland56.5
Tom LathamNew Zealand54.9
Ravindra JadejaIndia54.9
Rory BurnsEngland53.4
Mominul HaqueBangladesh52.8
Dean ElgarSouth Africa51.7
Usman KhawajaAustralia50.1
Niroshan DickwellaSri Lanka48.8
Tamim IqbalBangladesh48.5
Alastair CookEngland45.2
Quinton de KockSouth Africa44.9
Travis HeadAustralia40.9
David WarnerAustralia38.6

Karunaratne heads into this two-match series in a rich vein of form having averaged 66 on home soil for Sri Lanka in Tests since 2018 (14 innings) and comes into this game having registered a century in his last Test knock, posting that ton earlier this month in South Africa.

Another player who is slated to return to the fold for the hosts is veteran Angelo Mathews, a man who has not featured for the Lions in men’s Test cricket in a year. Matthews will be well-known to England fans having chalked up a couple of Test tons to his name against their side and it’s worth noting that he scored his maiden double-century in the format during the last Test series he played in, recording an unbeaten 200 against Zimbabwe in January 2020.


When we take a look at the visiting side, we see an array of selection issues which will need answering by Joe Root. None more so than at the top of the order, with Rory Burns unavailable. All indications are that 22-year-old Zak Crawley will step in and fill the void, a role he has played for England before, spending the majority of his debut Test series in South Africa as an opening batsman. Quite frankly, he’ll feel like he can do anything right now for this England side, having spent the winter reminiscing about his most recent Test knock – an unforgettable 267 at the Ageas Bowl versus Pakistan last summer. It was the highest innings score recorded by any man in Test cricket during 2020.

Zak Crawley’s 267 v Pakistan (August 2020)

Dan Lawrence is in contention to make his Test debut and the Essex batsman has been a core member of his side’s first-class success in recent years – Essex have won the English first-class competition in three of the last four seasons.

What makes him particularly interesting is that he’s proven to be adept at playing spin – a crucial skill when it comes to playing in Sri Lanka. Across his County Championship/Bob Willis Trophy career, the Englishman has averaged 34 versus seam and 58 when taking on spin bowling. Clearly, it’s going to be an easier experience playing spinners on the domestic circuit in England than facing the Sri Lankan spinners in the subcontinent, but the England coaching staff believe he’s done what’s necessary to this point to be given a shot at the highest level, in the most challenging of settings.

Jos Buttler scored his highest Test innings score when he last put on an England Test shirt, recording 152 against Pakistan on the south coast last August so it’s hard to see how Ben Foakes replaces him, despite the fact the Surrey man was the highest run-scorer during the last Test series between these sides in Sri Lanka (277). That being said, Buttler dropped four catches in that recent series with Pakistan – twice the number of any other fielder. To make matters worse for Buttler, none of those opportunities were evaluated as being ‘hard’ (two easy and two medium in terms of difficulty). Given the importance of spin during this upcoming tour, perhaps the way back in for Foakes isn’t through his batting (as most will be making the case for) but through his glovework.

England’s bowling attack was spearheaded by a three-headed monster in the spin department when they last toured Sri Lanka – Moeen Ali (18), Jack Leach (18) and Adil Rashid (12), made up three of the four highest wicket-takers across that series (Dilruwan Perera, 22). This time around it looks as if only one bowler will survive from that series. Leach will likely return to the fold given his experience (and success) in the country but with Adil Rashid being left at home and Moeen Ali testing positive for COVID-19 – it looks as if Dom Bess will be rewarded with his efforts over the summer, where he played the role of container on those unhelpful English wickets. The England selectors will most likely want to continue his run in the side and grant him the opportunity to have a go in the subcontinent. Bess did manage to claim a five-wicket haul in one of his two overseas Test match appearances, picking up 5/51 in South Africa and one has to say that if he could do it there, he has a great chance of taking wickets across this two-game series.

Jack Leach v RHB (in Sri Lanka, 2018)

Jack Leach v LHB (in Sri Lanka, 2018)

A criticism of Bess last summer was that he wasn’t threatening the stumps often enough, being too comfortable to drag his length back and play it safe – as evidenced by the fact that 29% of those balls were back of a length or shorter. He would be wise to look at the lengths his Somerset teammate logged when England last toured Sri Lanka, just 8.5% of his deliveries pitched on such a length and his bravery was rewarded with 18 breakthroughs.

England beat Sri Lanka 3-0 when they last successfully toured the country in this format (2018), and Joe Root’s men are looking to register back-to-back Test series wins there for the very first time.

England are currently enjoying a six-game unbeaten streak versus Sri Lanka in men’s Test cricket (W5 D1). Given the fact that Sri Lanka have been searching for wins in red ball cricket of late and have struggled for success against the English in recent years, one might think this series is a foregone conclusion – it is not. England have won each of their last three multi-game bilateral men’s Test series, seeing off South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan but the most recent of those series took place in August 2020 – the overwhelming majority of the touring squad have not partaken in any first-class cricket since then.

Their preparation for this series will also consist of two-day intra-squad fixtures ahead of these encounters with Sri Lanka, not to mention the fact they will have to shoulder the absence of Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes – an almost impossible task. Both sides have reasons to argue they aren’t firing on all cylinders ahead of these Galle Test matches but it certainly makes for an interesting watch.

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