Can Sri Lanka harness the chaos to turn the tide in Pallekele?

Malinda Pushpakumara is expected to come in for the retired Rangana Herath
Sri Lanka v England, 2nd Test, Kandy November 13, 2018

Big picture

The track in Pallekele looks dry so it will probably turn. If there is a touch of rain in the mountain air it could swing as well. But even if the pitch starts spitting fire, and a blizzard rolls through, England might still feel confident. They feel as if they have an attack for all seasons.

Cloudy skies and a new ball in hand? Have a bit of James Anderson, who bowls like he has pictures of the clouds in uncompromising positions, and so will exploit them relentlessly. Think you can handle Anderson? Well, try a bit of Sam Curran for the left-arm angle. Or why not Ben Stokes, who bowls vicious bouncers with the new ball, and gets reverse with the older one?

And so what if Adil Rashid is having an off day? Moeen Ali and Jack Leach are still around. Not even the England camp will claim these are exceptional spinners, but the way Sri Lanka batted in Galle, they don't have to be. If a quick over needs bowling, to try and squeeze another one in before lunch, Joe Root can fire down a few non-turning offbreaks as well. England's is not exactly a superstar attack, but they have the variety to expose an array of opposition weaknesses. If they bat like they did in Galle, "weakness" could even be the collective term for Sri Lanka's top order.

"There go the lot of them. A whole weakness of Sri Lanka batsmen."

Let's not pretend that the hosts' outlook isn't bleak. They've won six of their last 13 Tests, losing only three, but in that time they've relied heavily on runs from Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal, as well as wickets from Rangana Herath. Two of those three players won't feature in this game. There is also a biomechanics test hanging over Akila Dananjaya, which could affect his performance. The team manager has quit midway through the series over differences with head coach Chandika Hathurusingha as well.

The one thing going for Sri Lanka, though, is that they are well-practised harnessers of chaos. Sometimes the more upheaval there is around the team, the better they perform. You don't have to look back that far to find examples. In June, captain Chandimal was banned for three Tests over ball-tampering and spirit-of-cricket-related offences. Hathurusingha was suspended for two of those matches himself. Sri Lanka won all three of those games, coming from behind in Barbados, before crushing South Africa twice at home. In December last year, they drew a tough Test in Delhi despite almost half their team feeling the effects of seriously polluted air.

There is no formula to how this Sri Lanka team have got themselves to creditable results over the past 14 months, but they have dug deep and clawed their way into series. They have to believe they can do it again.

Form guide

Sri Lanka LWWWD (completed matches, most recent first)

England WWWLW

In the spotlight

Fifty Test matches, a bowling average north of 40 - on the surface, there isn't much about Suranga Lakmal that will really threaten an opposition. But look deeper. On unhelpful decks at home, he often performs an invaluable role, taking wickets with the new ball when he can, then keeping the pressure on the opposition while spinners attack at the other end. As acting captain, he has even been something of a revelation. Sri Lanka have won all three Tests he has led in. Never before has a fast bowler led Sri Lanka, but look at the way he marshals the limited resources at his disposal, and you wonder why it had not happened sooner.

News from the England camp is that following Moeen's twin failures at No. 3 in Galle, Ben Stokes will be asked to come in at first-drop. It is not a job he has ever done before, though that is not to say it is a bad option on a pitch expected to take turn from day one. In English conditions, No. 3 batsmen are tasked with holding the innings together and batting as deep as possible. On the trickier pitches in Sri Lanka, there is merit in sending an aggressive batsman up the order, to prevent the spinners from settling early, and to put some momentum into the innings. This is perhaps the theory England are basing their strategy on.

Team news

News from the England camp is that Jonny Bairstow is fit, but such are their riches at the moment, he is being left out of the side. England have confirmed an unchanged XI from Galle. Ben Stokes will bat at 3.

England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Keaton Jennings, 3 Ben Stokes, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Jos Buttler, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Jack Leach, 11 James Anderson

Lakmal strongly suggested that Sri Lanka would go in with three spinners, a seamer, and seven batsmen again. Roshen Silva looks likeliest to replace Dinesh Chandimal. Malinda Pushpakumara could slot into the position vacated by Herath, which means Lakshan Sandakan will likely have to remain outside the XI.

Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Kaushal Silva, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne , 3 Roshen Silva, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 7 Dhananjaya de Silva, 8 Dilruwan Perera, 9 Suranga Lakmal (capt), 10 Akila Dananjaya, 11 Malinda Pushpakumara

Pitch and conditions

Sri Lanka are understood to have been unhappy at the lack of drastic turn at Galle, and have instructed the groundstaff to produce a sharp turner in Pallekele at least. The pitch looks drier than the Galle surface was on the eve of the match. This being Pallekele, there is always the threat of rain interrupting play. And this being the tail-end of the monsoon, the threat is double.

Stats and trivia

  • Aside from Karunaratne and Chandimal, no other batsman in the Sri Lanka squad averages more than 40 since the start of 2017.

  • Although Jos Buttler has a reputation for playing spin well in the shorter formats, he averages only 26.1 from 12 Test innings in Asia, compared to a career average of 35.97.

  • Of the three Pallekele Tests that have produced a result, Sri Lanka have lost two matches, to India and Pakistan. Their one victory here was against Australia in 2016.

  • The last 22 Tests in Sri Lanka have now produced a result - a growing world record.


"I want us to look to take the positive option if we're unsure at any stage. I want us to keep taking the game to the opposition."
England captain Joe Root is not one to veer towards conservatism, even when sitting on a series lead

"We've asked for a pitch that favours the spinners, and I think that's basically what we have got here."
Sri Lanka acting captain Suranga Lakmal

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