Jake Howe | 6:47pm gmt 23 May 2011
On the 26th May at Sophia Gardens, Test cricket returns to the English season. Two very different sides with very different goals will be on show. For England, this is hoped to be a continuation of their Test victories and a step on the road to the number one ranking. For Sri Lanka, it is aimed to be the start of something very new.
It has been a long wait for England's Test fans, the Ashes success now months in the past and very little to smile about since. For supporters of the touring Sri Lankan team, it has been even longer, their side having not played a Test since November's heavily rain-affected series against the West Indies. No doubt, however, that they will have been more satisfied by the feast of World Cup cricket to fill our appetites since.
Indeed, the difference between England's disappointing world campaign and Sri Lanka's promising one was epitomised by the last matchbetween the two sides. England were ejected from the tournament in an embarassing 10-wicket loss in Colombo, as Sri Lanka went on their way to a hard-fought but unsuccessful final. England struggled against the home spinners for their nervous 50 overs, before openers Dilshan and Tharanga showed them how they should have batted on the Premadasa surface. It was a thorough and complete beating.
It will be a different proposition entirely to face England's Test team, on their own terms and in their own country. No one knows this better than England's captain Andrew Strauss. The opener struggled to score a run in Colombo, but has already made a bold statement this summer against the tourists with his 151 for Middlesex on the opening day of the tour. after having been rested from all county matches this summer, he will look forward to rejoining his promising side. After months without donning the whites, it will be an interesting test to see if the likes of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Matt Prior can continue the form that served them so well down under.
Strauss will be able to go into this series full of confidence in his bowlers. At any rate, the English attack is unlikely to present the same easy pickings offered up in March. Since Andy Flower took up the coach's role in early 2009, England have been outstanding with the red ball. Not only did their tight lines and subtle movement wreak havoc in Australia, but England have won all four home series in that time, using the Duke balls and swinging conditions to full effect. Over the last two home seasons, Anderson, Broad, Swann, Finn and Onions have taken 194 wickets at an average of 23.6, and since then have added the impressive Chris Tremlett to the squad.
It will be a stern test for the Sri Lankan top order. In Sangakkara, Jayawardena, Samaraweera and new captain Tilakaratne Dilshan, the tourists' batting lineup provides a wealth not just of skill, but of crucial Test experience. The pressure will be on them to perform, as the same cannot be said of the bowlers. Of those touring, two bowlers are yet to debut while four more are still to play a Test outside of Asia. Only the mercurial Dilhara Fernando has toured in England before.
It is not only a lack of experience that is worrying for these bowlers. The retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan - as well the feeling that most batsmen are now clued up on Ajantha Mendis' mystery - has left many wondering if the Sri Lankan lion has lost its bite. Indeed, since the legendary spinner bowed out in Galle, the attack has taken their wickets at a painful 46 runs each, and the abiding memory of last year's series against the West Indies is still Chris Gayle putting the Sri Lankan bowlers to the sword. The first challenge for the Sri Lankans' new selectors, new coach Stuart Law and new captain Dilshan is to find a working bowling unit as fast as possible.
They will take heart from the way their team has started the tour after two victories in their opening matches - first over a somewhat depleted Middlesex side that, following Strauss' 151 on the first day, proved little threat to the Test team. Following that, the Sri Lankans produced a remarkable comeback to defeat a strong England Lions team at Derby.
The position the tourists found themselves in after the first two days seemed to confirm the criticism leveled at them. After putting the Lions in to bat on a seamer's wicket, the inexperienced bowlers were dominated in the evening session by Samit Patel and especially Eoin Morgan, the Irishman producing a fluid 193 to help cement his Test selection. The Sri Lankan batsmen, with star performers Jayawardene and Sangakkara fresh from the IPL, were asked to bat on the second day and collapsed to 97/6, with only a fighting partnership between Suraj Randiv and Thisara Perera lifting them to a respectable score.
Having been asked to follow on, a captain's innings was needed from Dilshan and he responded in emphatic fashion, his swift century forming the cornerstone of his side's positive revival. A steadier century by fellow opener Paranavitana was folllwed by wicket-taking bursts from first Fernando and then Nuwan Pradeep as the Lions capitulated to 183 all out chasing 222 for victory.
It was a sensational turnaround, and a timely reminder to the hosts that as Law said, his team "can be devastating." They are here to win, and when they play to their best, each member of this team is not to be taken lightly.
Sri Lanka will not be the only ones in the process of trying out some new blood. Paul Collingwood's retirement during the Sydney Test had left a final batting spot open for one of England's young hopefuls to claim. Leading the race were two batsmen who at different stages in their careers have been dismissed as one-day cricketers only - Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara. Morgan, after having resolutely booked his place in the ODI team with three matchwinning centuries in 2010 alone, had been all but assured of the space in January. But Bopara had other ideas. The Essex batsman declined an IPL offer to spend the early season with his county, and it paid off - two hundreds and over 400 runs in five Championship matches looks much better on the Test resume than Morgan's mostly unimpressive IPL stint.
Nonetheless it is Morgan who rose to the top when the pressure was on. The Lions match was frequently dubbed a "shootout" between the two, and when Bopara's scratchy 19 in the first innings left the door ajar, Morgan burst through it with his impressive display. The 23-year old has earned a prolonged stay in the side over the last 18 months and will relish the challenge of both the touring Sri Lankans and Indians in July.
This is a series that looks to answer questions for both sides - one aiming to push on, the other rebuild - but one thing is for certain: Both teams will be desperate to win. Amongst all the intrigue, we are set for a hard-fought series of Test cricket, and I for one cannot wait for the summer to truly begin.