Sri Lanka’s cricketers fly home on Friday after a chastening 2-0 defeat in South Africa but with revenge now squarely on their minds when it comes to their upcoming series against England.
Joe Root’s side won 3-0 on the island in late 2018 thanks to a dynamic fast-scoring gameplan with the bat in which the sweep and reverse sweep were deployed aggressively against the spinners and the home side rather wilted in response.
According to Mickey Arthur, their head coach since late 2019, that experience had a profound impact on Sri Lanka and though his injury-ridden side could not cope with the pace and bounce of South Africa’s quicks on the Highveld recently, he fancies it will be a different story in the first Test in Galle next week.
“I think Sri Lanka were hit hard by the 3-0 defeat to England two years ago,” he told the Guardian. “They didn’t expect it. But this time around we will certainly be prepared for any kind of repeat. We know we will have to box clever too.
“I am comfortable that our guys in those conditions are technically a lot more streetwise than they are against the fast bouncing ball. They grow a leg when they come back into their own conditions: they become taller, bigger, stronger. They know what to do.”
For all this positivity from Arthur, typical of a coach who lived and breathed every moment when in charge of his native South Africa, Australia and Pakistan, Sri Lanka have played only one home series since England’s last visit: a 1-1 draw with New Zealand in 2019 when the tourists levelled matters with an innings victory in Colombo.
Arthur is coy about the strategy this time around but it is not hard to deduce that Root and Co will likely face an attack that has the fingers spinners Lasith Embuldeniya and Dilruwan Perera challenging either side of the bat, and Sri Lanka’s highly-rated new wrist-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga offering a touch of mystery.
“I suspect it is going to turn a bit, in fact I know it will,” said Arthur, who along with the in-form captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, plans to meet Galle’s head groundsman once Sri Lanka’s players and support staff have cleared their Covid-19 tests upon arrival.
“We will have to play their spinners well though. Dom Bess debuted against Pakistan in 2018 when I was with them and has come on strongly since. I have watched Jack Leach a lot too – my past teams seemed to always play warm-ups against Somerset – and he’s a very fine bowler. It will be typically Sri Lankan conditions.”
Sri Lanka were not without bright moments in South Africa, recovering from 54 for three in the first Test to put 396 on the board and inducing a collapse of nine for 84 with the ball in the second. Confidence also comes with returns for the seasoned batsmen Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews following respective groin and hamstring injuries.
England have also lost Moeen Ali to the virus – the all-rounder was their leading wicket-taker with 18 victims two years ago – and, along with Rory Burns missing out due to paternity leave and Ollie Pope not yet fit after shoulder surgery, they have also rested both Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer in advance of an India tour that follows.
Arthur said: “I don’t think England would ever take us lightly. Rest and rotation is just the way of the world. You wouldn’t want to break Jofra’s back in Galle and Stokes has come off a tough time [following the death of his father]. I know [the head coach] Chris Silverwood well and they will not be underprepared.”
Another familiar face for Arthur in the England setup is the batting consultant Jacques Kallis, with whom he spent five years while in charge of South Africa.
“I didn’t think I’d be facing Mark Boucher [South Africa’s head coach] and Jacques within a week of each other! Jacques has a wealth of experience to tap into and when he talks, guys listen. Each England batsman will get something out of him, for sure.
Can the presence of Kallis unlock some form for Root, following the captain’s first calendar year in international cricket without a century? “He’s still one hell of a cricketer,” Arthur replied. “I’m sure the runs are going to come … but only once they get to India.”