By the time England take the field in Galle in six weeks’ time, it will have been two years and 13 matches since England won a Test away from home, against Bangladesh in Dhaka in October 2016.
Since, they have escaped from just three away games with draws, and lost the rest. In the two home summers since they have won 10 of 14 matches, and not lost a series.
It has been the cause of much reflection at the ECB. Sure, lots of teams are bad away in Test cricket, but England are particularly bad. England Lions have been particularly bad, too. The ECB tried to strike a deal with Cricket Australia over the quality of tour matches played before series.
They spoke at length about the need to develop quality spin and pace (neither art is particularly encouraged by the County Championship), and they spoke about selecting on a “horses for courses” basis, the idea being that just because you are effective in England – particularly right-arm pace somewhere in the mid-80mphs – does not mean you should be selected overseas.
With all this in mind, England’s squad for the tour of Sri Lanka in November was always likely to be fascinating. It is the first overseas squad selected by the new panel of Ed Smith and James Taylor, who have proved brave selectors.
With that away record, and the retirement of Alastair Cook, there were departments – the top order, spin – in which they did not look overrun with options.
With Cook gone, only James Anderson and Stuart Broad, of those who played this home summer, had even made their Test debuts when England were last in Sri Lanka in 2012. That Smith had to keep half on an eye on next summer’s Ashes, and building a team to win that, made his task even harder.
It is also notable that it is to Sri Lanka, where spinning conditions – rarely happy words for English batsmen particularly – are extreme and touring teams have been chewed up and spat out in recent years, particularly by the brilliant Rangana Herath. Sri Lanka have not had a Test draw at home for four years; the pitches will produce results.
Smith’s squad had few surprises and, as he has tended to as selector, married stats with gut feel. There are three new players, and faith with those who beat India 4-1. Jack Leach, having found form, is back; Ollie Pope has not lost his place as spare batsman; and Keaton Jennings was retained his at the top of the order.
That last selection that will raise eyebrows, but perhaps, having lost Cook, England had no choice but to stick with Jennings. There are already two new opening options in the squad, and Moeen Ali is not settled at No3.
As Smith said, until the Oval Test, Jennings conformed to the average – around 20 – of openers in England this Test summer. Trouble is, at the Oval, Cook and KL Rahul showed their class, while Jennings had a very poor dismissal each to seam and spin.
He averages 22 after 12 Tests, and looks unlikely to make runs in next summer’s Ashes. His century on debut in Mumbai is clearly a big plus, but since then he has hardly looked natural against spin, and on Lions tours to Sri Lanka and West Indies – England’s destinations this winter – over the last two years, he has not reached 50. The faith in his character and temperament is admirable, but might not be sensible.
Competing with Jennings are an unavoidable numbers-based choice, Rory Burns, and Joe Denly, whose stats this year do not scream “selection certainty” but who has shown over time that he is an experienced, adaptable player of class. When asked what Denly’s role in the squad was, Smith’s response was at once very straightforward and very strange. “He’s there as a cricketer,” said Smith. Fortunately, he expanded.
Denly’s legspin provides a handy option, he plays spin and seam adeptly and he has shown fine temperament in high-pressure T20 leagues. Smith played with him and, a decade on, clearly feels the slow road to success has suited him.
On Burns, Smith really had no choice. Partly because of the individual and team achievements the Surrey captain has racked up this season, and partly because Alec Stewart might actually have come searching for Smith if he had left him at home. Burns deserves a decent crack in the side, because he will start in a mighty tough place.
The other newcomer, Olly Stone, is selected ahead of Jamie Porter for that “point of difference” England have been after overseas. He is quick, and is taking his wickets at an average of 12 and strike-rate of 22 this year. If managed well, the ingredients are there to succeed overseas.The difficulty is that Stone is one of six seamers, alongside three spinners of different types (and, as Smith was keen to stress, two part-timers spinners who turn it different ways). In Sri Lanka, where spin will define proceedings, that looks a seamer heavy and a spinner light.
Broad, who really did not want the rest some advocated (rest for what, to be fair), with his 433 Test wickets, looks an extremely luxurious drinks waiter, as he can expect to be behind Anderson, Ben Stokes and Sam Curran in Galle. England want the most variety and the shortest tail they can muster.
England are likely to set up with at least four all-rounders, meaning they will have plenty of bases covered. This series, though, will be decided by the specialists: how England’s spinners bowl, and how their batsmen – not least the new and unproven ones – fare against spin bowling. Only if they get that right will their overseas woes end.