England cricketer Stuart Broad (L) appeals unsuccessfully for a leg before wicket (LBW) decision against Sri Lanka Board XI Lahiru Thirimanne (2R) during the two-day practice cricket match between the Sri Lanka Board XI and England in Colombo on November 2, 2018. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

After a heavily rain-affected white ball series, England take on Sri Lanka in a three-match Test series looking to halt an away slump that has seen them lose four successive away Test series.

Meanwhile, their hosts have not lost a home series to a non-Asian side since 2014; when South Africa claimed a 1-0 series win.

The signs all point to a comprehensive victory for the home nation but both sides enter the red ball part of the itinerary in a state of flux.

Sri Lanka v England Test Series

England will be playing without their obdurate opener, Alastair Cook. The first Test in Galle will be the first time since 2006 that the leading run scorer in English Test match history will not be pulling on the three lions. His retirement further exposes the fragility of England’s top order, having struggled to replace Andrew Strauss, they now have the unenviable task of trying to find two openers.

An injury to Jonny Bairstow may allow Keaton Jennings one final game to keep his International career alive but it is the Surrey captain, Rory Burns, who looks like the man slated to replace Cook. His domestic record has been nothing short of extraordinary. Five successive seasons with over 1000 first-class runs and he finished 2018 with a batting average of 69.42. Cook may have left massive shoes to fill, not least with his average of 53 in Asia, but if you squint hard enough while looking at Burns you can see shades of the former England skipper.

The strength of England’s side once again lies in their all-round options. Ben Stokes allows for just two main frontline seamers, while Moeen Ali gives the chance for a three-pronged spin bowling attack comprising of Ali, Jack Leach, and Adil Rashid. Where Ali features in the batting line-up remains to be seen, the 31-year-old ended the summer at three but has returned down the order in the two warm-up games but his placement may have a bearing on whether it is Ollie Pope or Joe Denly (back into international cricket after a nine-year absence) who takes the place of Bairstow. Neither Denly nor Pope pushed their claims during the warm-up matches, however.

An interesting dynamic will be how Joe Root deploys his spin options, the squad has all bases covered and it would come as a surprise if all three did not feature at Galle in the first Test. Leach and Ali could operate in an economical controlling role, while Rashid will be an attacking option with his leg-spin to the lower order. This is an area the Yorkshireman has excelled at in white-ball cricket, number six batsmen and below average a combined eight against his bowling in ODIs.

For the hosts, the days of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are now becoming distant in the rearview mirror. After the First Test in Galle, another illustrious name will be retiring. Rangana Herath.

The diminutive spinner may not draw the same plaudits from the cricketing world as Muralitharan but his impact on the Sri Lankan side has been vital for years. If England’s recent record against spin is anything to go by then the 40-year-old will add a few more victims to his current tally of 430 Test match victims.

Sri Lanka may lack the household batting names of previous sides but a familiar presence in Angelo Mathews returns after missing the white-ball leg of the series. The right-handed batsman always finds a way to score runs against England and the hosts will be hoping that he can contribute again.

The run-scoring burden will not fall entirely on the shoulders of Mathews, as a few players managed to score runs in the practice matches. It sounds obvious but amassing large first innings scores has been a key factor in England losing away from home.

Kusal Mendis may have had a lean spell of late but the 23-year-old number three is one of the most talented players in the Sri Lankan side and he should flourish on home soil. A strong series could kick-start his career to follow in the footsteps of those high scoring, classical Sri Lankan top-order players who have come before him.

As with most Test series, winning the key moments within sessions will decide who will claim the series. For England, at home, this has been no trouble at all, even against India but away from home they have far too often been on the wrong side of those moments.

Both sides are looking to discover their identity and this series may go a long way to forming the foundations of their futures. It will be a closely fought series, as long as the monsoons that plagued the white-ball games stay away that is.

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