Much has changed since the ‘total cricket’ of 2018 earned a famous 3-0 win in Sri Lanka but Joe Root goes into the first Test with high hopes of starting England’s busiest year with a bang.
The first of 18 Tests in 12 months sees England resume where they left off at the start of the pandemic in March by taking on a Sri Lanka side who have only just returned from a 2-0 defeat in South Africa.
And even though England have only one day of intra-squad practice in Hambantota behind them in way of preparation, they are confident of avoiding the type of slow start that has dogged them recently in Test cricket.
Joe Root has high hopes of starting England’s busiest year with a bang in Galle this week
‘When we were here in 2018 we were exposed to some extreme conditions and had a side suited to playing in a positive manner,’ said Root at the start of a year that will define his Test captaincy.
‘We have a slightly different make-up to the squad and our strengths lie in different areas.
‘We might not be looking at scoring at three and a half to four runs an over like last time but it is still about making big first-innings runs, trying to get 400-450 plus when we get the opportunity to do that.
‘But it could be that 300 is a massive score too. How we get there is by adapting to conditions in each individual’s own way.’
Responsibility for those runs will fall in part — in the absence of Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes — to the returning Jonny Bairstow, who will bat at three, and debutant Dan Lawrence, who is stepping into the huge shoes vacated by Stokes at five.
And Root believes Bairstow, the man with a perennial point to prove, and gifted newcomer Lawrence, 23, have what it takes to prosper in the uniquely demanding environment of Galle, venue for both Tests.
Much has changed since England’s ‘total cricket’ approach brought a 3-0 victory in 2018
‘Dan is a very exciting prospect,’ said Root. ‘He’s an eye-catching player who has all the shots and the ability to put sides under pressure, whether that is when batting long periods of time or through expansive, aggressive play.
‘That’s a good combination to have. And Jonny is a world-class player. He’s got a wealth of experience and has had success here in the past.
‘It’s a good opportunity for him and he’ll be trying to grab it with both hands to make a mark in the Test team again.’
Root, meanwhile, might have as big a part to play for England with the ball as the bat.
Unseasonal rain in Galle, plus the absence of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, who has been all but ruled out of the series after testing positive for Covid-19, means England will abandon the successful 2018 Sri Lankan policy of playing three spinners.
Only Jack Leach, who took 18 wickets in those three wins, remains and he will play just his third match in 14 months alongside his erstwhile Somerset team-mate Dom Bess.
England’s players have been impressed by the Covid protocols that are in place in Sri Lanka
That will leave Root and Lawrence to make up the spin numbers, rather than promoting one of the reserves — Matt Parkinson, Amar Virdi or Mason Crane.
‘I’ve readied myself to bowl,’ said Root. ‘I’ll just try to execute the role that is needed.
‘If I need to bowl longer spells in this series then I’m looking forward to the challenge.’
Root said that, two days out, the pitch at the iconic Galle ground looked different from how it did in 2018. ‘I don’t think it’s miles away from what you’d expect from a Galle wicket but we’ll have to wait and see,’ said the captain.
‘It’s going to spin. It’s just when is it going to spin, that’s the question.
‘But if there is weather around and there’s a tacky nature to the pitch, with it sweating under the covers, that probably brings seam into it a bit more than usual.’
England have plenty of seam options and the biggest question is whether to pick both the old thoroughbreds Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad or, more likely, rely on one of them alongside the extra pace of Mark Wood and the left arm of Sam Curran.
The one certainty seems to be that Chris Woakes misses out after paying a high price for sharing a ‘van’ to Heathrow from Birmingham with Moeen before departure and having to self-isolate as a consequence.
For Woakes, who only started bowling on Monday, the first Test surely comes too soon.
The eye-catching Dan Lawrence will make his debut in place of the rested Ben Stokes
England have been impressed and reassured by biosecure protocols in Sri Lanka that are said to be much more like the stringent conditions in place in England last summer than the bubble that burst so damagingly in South Africa before Christmas.
And that means they have no issues with home players who only returned to Sri Lanka from Johannesburg six days ago being available, as they have gone straight from a South African bubble into a Sri Lankan one.
Now all England need is for their latest round of Covid tests to come back negative on Wednesday for them to be in business and for the cricketing show to get back on the road.
It will certainly be a pleasing distraction from England’s Covid chaos to watch Root’s team in action at one of the world’s great Test venues, albeit remotely.
Now all that is needed is for them to get their non-stop year off to a positive start — as they should.