The contrast in fortunes between England and Sri Lanka in ODI cricket is so stark – and so unusual – that it could well form the subject of a body-swap comedy. Four years ago, on England’s last visit to the island, the wheels fell off their World Cup campaign before it had even begun: Alastair Cook was sacked at the end of the tour and they slid aimlessly through the subsequent tournament, axles throwing up sparks, to go straight out at the group stage (in which, let’s not forget, they were thrashed by nine wickets by Sri Lanka).
However, then the Freaky Friday fun began. England are now ranked the No. 1 ODI side in the world, while Sri Lanka, the original punk-rock aggressors in the format, have sunk to depths unimagined since their watershed victory at the 1996 World Cup. Of their most recent 40 ODIs, they have lost 30, with five different captains taking charge. The latest change took place a matter of weeks ago, with Dinesh Chandimal reinstated at the expense of Angelo Mathews – who was discarded from the squad entirely after the Asia Cup, amid concerns over his fitness and running between the wickets. For Sri Lankans, it’s a case of laughing else you’ll cry.
While England have only triumphed once previously on the ODI leg of a Sri Lanka tour, bilateral series have become meat and drink for Eoin Morgan‘s mean machine – they have won eight in a row, leaving aside a one-off defeat to Scotland in June. The World Cup, with the attendant pressures of knockout cricket, is a different proposition, but England are currently a rocket-propulsion unit with a locked-on target. Even a lack of practice, thanks to Sri Lanka’s monsoon season, is unlikely to have anyone thinking they aren’t favourites.
For Chandimal and coach Chandika Hathurusingha, a short-term fix is probably more important than what might happen in seven months’ time. High-quality spin always has a chance of upsetting England (see Kuldeep Yadav’s turn during the early part of India’s recent tour) and Lasith Malinga has stalked back from the shadows, a ghost from Sri Lanka’s formidable past. The weather, too, could help level the playing field if it disrupts the visitors’ rhythm. But Mathews’ absence leaves a big hole in the batting (no jokes about his size), and it remains to be seen whether a struggling side can escape the heavy gravity of recent failures. How things have changed.
Sri Lanka LLWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Dinesh Chandimal has filled in as one-day captain before, but this series marks the start of his first official tenure. That he missed the Asia Cup debacle (through injury) was probably a good thing, but having also been suspended for the visit of South Africa in August, it is now nine months since he last played an ODI. His most recent fifty in the format came in March 2017 and he hasn’t reached three figures in more than two years. Hathurusingha has spoken of Chandimal regaining the aggression of his early career but it will be quite a job to turn around his own record as well as the form of a badly listing team.
Plenty is different for England since their last visit, but Chris Woakes remains the focal point of the pace attack. His performances in 2014-15, when he took 14 wickets at 25.28, were a rare bright spot and he has developed into Morgan’s most trustworthy ODI seamer – although he missed the white-ball summer through injury. England have spoken in the build-up to the series about the importance of managing workloads for the quicks, and their ability to adapt quickly to conditions could be key. With Liam Plunkett and David Willey absent, Woakes’ experience will be all the more valuable.
The returns of Chandimal and Niroshan Dickwella are likely to be the major changes for Sri Lanka after their early exit from the Asia Cup, with Mathews and Kusal Mendis dropped. Amila Aponso could provide a third spin option, if required, while Nuwan Pradeep and Kasun Rajitha are the spare pace bowlers in the squad.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 3 Kusal Perera, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (capt), 5 Dhananjaya de Silva, 6 Dasun Shanaka, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Akila Dananjaya, 9 Lakshan Sandakan, 10 Dushmantha Chameera, 11 Lasith Malinga
England’s main selection issue revolves around their third seamer: Tom and Sam Curran offer different angles of attack, while uncapped Olly Stone brings extra pace. Tom Curran‘s greater experience perhaps puts him at the head of the queue. Jason Roy missed England’s most-recent ODI with a finger injury but is likely to open alongside Jonny Bairstow in preference to Alex Hales.
England (possible): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jonny Bairstow, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Tom Curran, 11 Mark Wood
Pitch and conditions
The ground was looking lush on match eve, though the grass is likely to be trimmed further before the game begins. Rainfall interrupted Sri Lanka’s practice and the fact the covers have been on may mean there is some initial assistance for seamers, with spin also likely to play a part – but the pitch should still be decent for batting.
Stats and trivia
- Sri Lanka have lost their last seven completed ODIs in Dambulla. Their most-recent victory at the ground came against Pakistan in 2014.
- England’s last loss in a multi-match bilateral series came in India in 2016-17.
- Jonny Bairstow is 30 runs away from scoring 1000 in the calendar year. Only five England batsmen have previously managed the feat in ODIs, the most recent being Jonathan Trott in 2011.
“Moeen [Ali] and [Adil] Rashid bowled really well in the practice game, we have a really good challenge from both of them. England have got more experience but we have got more mystery.”
Dinesh Chandimal contrasts England’s spinners with those at his disposal
“Obviously the World Cup is in the back of everyone’s mind, but there are very important series all along the way. It’s about trending in the right way and building a core group of players – a squad of 15/16/17 guys who we can hopefully call upon.”
England vice-captain Jos Buttler isn’t looking too far ahead
Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.