Sri Lanka v England preview: Tourists hold all the aces ahead of Dambulla opener

Felix Keith
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England captain Eoin Morgan will be confident of his side's chances in Sri Lanka (Source: Getty)

How times have changed for England. Last time they were in Sri Lanka to play a one-day series things were far less rosy than they are currently.

In 2014, a side led by Alastair Cook succumbed to a 5-2 series defeat, as Kumar Sangakkara plundered a whopping 454 runs with five scores of over 50 in seven innings, while Tilakaratne Dilshan won player of the series for his efforts with bat and ball.

Seven of the current England squad were involved in the series, but they return to face Sri Lanka at Dambulla tomorrow in the first of five ODIs confident, rather than scarred.

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That’s because the form, mood and approach of the England one-day side now could hardly be much different to four years ago.

Eoin Morgan’s team have learnt from their past mistakes and have developed themselves into the stand-out side in the 50-over format. They are ranked No1 in the world, have not lost a bilateral one-day series since January 2017 and boast a record of played 50, won 38 since June 2016.

With seven months to go until a home World Cup on which much is resting, the favourites tag sits comfortably. Through an ambitious, aggressive and unflinching method England have turned themselves into perennial front-runners.

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Jos Buttler has been at the forefront of England's new approach in one-day cricket (Source: Getty)

The words of Jos Buttler, vice-captain and a prominent player in the turnaround, show England are very happy with their position.

“I think the guys enjoy the pressure of being the No1 side and people wanting to beat us. We like being favourites, it means we’re doing something right,” he said. “We have been trying to adapt our playing style to all conditions and we are still trying to push the boundaries of what is capable on any given day.”

Their confidence derives from their own camp, but the visitors may also be cheered by the decline of their opponents.

Sri Lanka’s comprehensive win four years ago was built around Sangakkara’s runs, Dilshan’s off-spin and captain Angelo Mathews’ leadership. The first two have retired, while Mathews has been dropped amid fitness concerns.

Former captain Angelo Mathews has been dropped by Sri Lanka (Source: Getty)

Lasith Malinga may still be going aged 35, but Mahela Jayawardene has also hung up his spikes and the end of a golden generation has certainly had a dramatic effect on performances.

The hosts are ranked eighth in the world following miserable defeats by Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the group stages of the Asia Cup last month, in which they were bowled out for 124 and 158.

Overall, Sri Lanka have lost their last five bilateral one-day series and nine of their last 11. The aims of newly-installed captain Dinesh Chandimal are therefore markedly less ambitious than England’s, with rebuilding the immediate concern.

“If we can beat the No1 side in the world in this series that would be a great turning point going into the World Cup,” he said.

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Better weather is forecast in Dambulla for tomorrow after rain hindered England's preparation (Source: Getty)

Despite losing the old guard of Sangakkara, Dilshan and Jayawardene, Sri Lanka aren’t massively inexperienced. Chandimal can call upon Malinga, Upul Tharanga and Thisara Perera, who have 576 ODI caps between them, while there is the usual focus on spin bowling.

But that is where the positives stop. Playing away from home on the sub-continent, received wisdom would suggest England will be forced to battle the conditions – the humidity, spin-friendly wickets and slow outfields.

Yet even those advantages appear watered down for Sri Lanka.

Chandimal’s side have not won at Dambulla in their last seven games, while Morgan, Buttler, Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes have experience of playing one-day cricket in the country.

Similarly, the fact England’s coach Trevor Bayliss and assistant Paul Farbrace have both previously led Sri Lanka in separate stints should help nullify any remaining unfamiliarity.

There won’t be any unfamiliarity in England’s batting line-up, with the top seven settled, meaning Hales will likely be the unfortunate man to miss out.

SLC XI v England - Tour Match
Olly Stone stands a good chance of making his England debut after playing in the warm-up match (Source: Getty)

However, with David Willey injured and Liam Plunkett missing the first three matches to get married, there are decisions to be made in the bowling unit. Woakes and leg-spinner Adil Rashid are expected to play, leaving two spots up for grabs.

Fit and firing Mark Wood, complete with a new longer run-up, will compete with the exciting option of Warwickshire pace bowler Olly Stone for the quick bowler spot.

Meanwhile, the second position comes down to whether England want three spinners on a wicket expected to turn. If so, Hampshire’s left-arm spinner Liam Dawson will earn his second ODI cap. If not, one of Sam and Tom Curran could slot in.

Whoever gets the nod, England will be confident of getting off a good start as they look to secure a ninth successive bilateral one-day series.