The ICC Test team rankings can be a pretty big target. They certainly were when Australia moved to the top of the world in February. Wasn’t this the side who just months before got smashed by England? And whitewashed in their previous trip to India? You get the picture.
One secret to Australia’s success: making it count in dead rubbers. Running the table against New Zealand rather than being satisfied with the series win before easing off was the reason they finished the year with the mace – and the cash bonus.
There’s a lesson in this for England, who Alastair Cook wants to take back to the top of world cricket. They need to finish Sri Lanka off this week. Properly.
“In dead rubbers we’ve not played as well,” said Cook on the eve of the game. In recent times, England have lost to South Africa and Australia after their trophies were secured. “If we want to get where we want to, which is the best side in the world, these are the games that we need to play better in.”
The rankings process does lend some relevance to the final match of a series as underwhelming as this, doubly so after Cook’s own 10,000th run milestone has been reached and lauded. Illustrating how interest has waned, in Cook’s pre-match press conference, conversation quickly moved to any topic but the game, including the return of Mohammad Amir, Sachin Tendulkar’s genius, hypothetical day-night Ashes Tests and even the European Football Championship.
But Lord’s should be where the visitors back themselves for the best showing on tour to date; finally free of the naughty lateral movement of the chilly north to a mild Lord’s where batsmen near and far have cashed in for big runs so far this season.
It’s also a ground with fond memories, a ground where Angelo Mathews’s side just two years ago withstood a barrack of Liam Plunkett bouncers on the final day to survive the gutsiest of draws. Indeed, Sri Lanka haven’t been beaten at cricket’s headquarters since 1991.
Cook acknowledged that he was carrying two players into the Test well short of their best in Steve Finn and Nick Compton, both of whom call Lord’s home in county cricket. Their skipper’s (quite admirable) logic is that consistency and loyalty both count for something.
“You give people chances to show what they can do in England shirts and you want people to feel comfortable as they can,” he said. “You don’t want people always looking over your shoulder, so when you get a chance you get a good one.”
In Finn’s case, he’s seen off the threat of Jake Ball for his position after an especially difficult final day in Durham, where he looked as out of sorts as at his messy 2013-14 Ashes tour. But he retains the faith of his captain.
“He hasn’t quite nailed it these two tests, but we’ve seen glimpses” said Cook, before adding that Finn had left a bruise on him from net practice.
As for Compton, Cook didn’t shirk the fact that he would be playing for his spot, and thus his England career, this week.
“He’s got the class to score the big score, but until you do it there are always going to be questions,” the captain said. “He understands.”
For the visitors, their selection considerations were – and remain – more taxing.
Milinda Siriwardana is expected to miss out after injuring an ankle in a training mishap during the week. He could be replaced by the unlikely debut hero of the opening morning of the series (how long ago that feels) Dusan Shanaka. Alternatively, the call up could be for Kusal Perera, just a month after he was cleared of a doping charge after six months out of the game.
With the ball, Sri Lanka’s pace dramas have only gotten worse with Shaminda Eranga having been pulled up by the ICC’s chucking police for a please explain. He’s fine to play at Lord’s, but more likely is that Chaminda Bandara, the left-arm pacer, will come in for his first cap instead.
Dinesh Chandimal will take back the wicketkeeping gloves after a thumb injury proved a bother in Durham, albeit not a sufficient handbrake to prevent him playing the best innings of the previous encounter; a delightful century against the grain. More please.
One other player who had a word or two to say before the match was Joe Root, England’s vice-captain. His main point: He doesn’t convert enough 50s to hundreds and wants to immediately set that straight. With a track as flat as Lord’s, who would want to be a bowler? Tons and tons of runs await.
England: Alastair Cook (capt), Alex Hales, Nick Compton, Joe Root, James Vince, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, James Anderson, Jake Ball.
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal (wk), Angelo Mathews (capt), Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Perera (wk), Rangana Herath, Chaminda Bandara, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Dilruwan Perera, Dasun Shanaka, Shaminda Eranga, Milinda Siriwardana.