It is 25 months since England toured Sri Lanka in 2018 and yet, remarkably, Dimuth Karunaratne's team have played just two home Test matches since that series. England have played 12 home Tests, and 21 in all, in the same period. The contrast is striking, a neat illustration of the gulf between the small number of wealthy cricketing boards that make money from Test cricket, and thus play it regularly, and the majority who do not play anywhere near as much because they cannot afford to.
COVID-19 has also played a role in the schedule over the last year, of course. This series was initially due to take place last March but was cancelled as the initial wave of the pandemic forced England to decamp for home midway through a warm-up game. These two matches form part of the World Test Championship and while England retain a mathematical chance of reaching this summer's final, it is almost impossible to see them doing enough to take one of the two top spots.
Sri Lanka currently sit seventh in the WTC table and have been on a rocky run of late. They have played 14 Tests since England trounced them 3-0 in that 2018 series, winning just four of them and using 24 different players in the process. They head into the two-match rubber against Joe Root's team, beginning at Galle on Thursday (January 14), after being walloped in South Africa, although, in fairness, they were hamstrung - literally in the case of Suranga Lakmal and Angelo Mathews - by a spate of injuries.
They will no doubt feel far more comfortable in their own conditions, where spin is set to dominate. Experienced off-spinner Dilruwan Perera took 22 wickets in the 2018 series, the highest on either team, and will be relied upon to provide a cutting edge while 24-year-old slow-left-armer Lasith Embuldeniya is accurate and gets good bounce from his tall frame. Leg-spinning all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga made his debut in South Africa and has a first-class batting average of 41.85 and bowling average of 27.95. All three look set to play.
Sri Lanka's trio of spinners will hope to take advantage of the rustiness that England are likely to feel. Through no fault of their own, the tourists have had just one day of match practice ahead of the first Test and have not played any Test cricket since the end of August. Despite their defeat in South Africa, Sri Lanka should at least be battle hardened in a way their opponents are not. The tourists are also missing Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Rory Burns from their first choice team. As a result, Sri Lanka are probably favourites for this series, despite the result two years ago.
If the home team are to beat England, their batting will need to be far more robust than it was in South Africa, albeit in vastly different conditions. Mathews could return after missing the South Africa series with a hamstring injury he suffered in semi-final of the Lanka Premier League while Dinesh Chandimal, who tweaked a groin during the first Test at Centurion, should also be fit. Including their ability and experience will certainly be a boon to the home side. If they are both included, Kusal Mendis could make way after three successive ducks against the Proteas.
Sri Lanka have an excellent record in Galle, having won 18 of their 32 Tests in front of the fort ramparts. England, however, have happy recent memories there. On the 2018 tour, they hammered the home team by 211 runs with Ben Foakes and Keaton Jennings registering hundreds and Moeen Ali taking eight wickets. None of these three players is going to be included this time, however. Jos Buttler is set to keep wicket instead of Foakes while Moeen Ali has been ruled out after contracting COVID-19. Jennings was not selected for this tour at all. A repeat of that 2018 result will need other England players to stand up. -cricbuzz