No sooner have the glasses of arrack been raised to toast England’s best away win since Johannesburg in January 2016 than they must work out how to squeeze a quart into a pint pot in Pallekele.
Victory in this week’s second Test will give them their first series win in Sri Lanka since Nasser Hussain’s team came from behind in 2000-01. And if the side they beat back then contained rather more all-time greats than the current Sri Lankans, then Joe Root will simply be grateful to have ended the longest sequence without an away win in England’s Test history.
To an idyllic background of the Indian Ocean lapping the shore by the team hotel, coach Trevor Bayliss felt sufficiently relaxed to proclaim the triumph in Galle as ‘the beginnings of Joe Root’s team’. As to what that team will look like come Wednesday, not even Bayliss seemed sure.
England coach Trevor Bayliss has conundrum of who should bat at No 3, they have possibilities
It has not been lost on him, Root or national selector Ed Smith, who is in Sri Lanka but lacks a formal say on the final XI, that England won the first Test with a team that was markedly less experienced than the one which won their previous game, against India at The Oval in September.
With Alastair Cook retired, Stuart Broad omitted and Jonny Bairstow injured, England started in Galle without that trio’s combined 343 Test caps – and succeeded handsomely.
Chief among the conundrums is who should bat at No 3 – and England have possibilities coming out of their ears. The problem is, none of them is entirely convincing.
Moeen Ali, the incumbent, seems the least plausible option, having made nought and three in Galle. Bayliss generously described him as ‘a chance’, but added: ‘He’s had a few opportunities, let’s be honest, up the order, and at this stage hasn’t really taken them.’
That leaves three serious contenders, assuming Joe Denly doesn’t come from nowhere to win his first cap. Bayliss admitted Jos Buttler would have batted at No 3 in Galle had England bowled first and Ali got through lots of overs.
But, with Ben Foakes making the debut from heaven, Jonny Bairstow’s likeliest route back in the side – assuming he continues to make good progress on his twisted ankle – is as a specialist batsman.
Moeen Ali seems the least plausible option, having made nought and three in Galle
Then there’s Ben Stokes, who is understood to be keen to try his hand at first drop, despite only twice batting as high as No 4, once when England were trying to set up a declaration at Rajkot.
‘Obviously Jonny’s an option,’ said Bayliss. ‘But we think Stokes has got as good a technique as anyone else to bat No 3.’
The sense of a batting unit still up in the air belied Bayliss’s claim that ‘we’re starting to get a little closer to a stable order’, especially since he still believes Root should resume his role at No 3. But if Stokes gets the job, it would at least allow Bairstow to come in at No 5, which he would prefer.
Bayliss admitted Jos Buttler would have batted at No 3 in Galle had England bowled first
To further complicate matters, Bayliss wouldn’t even rule out Bairstow reclaiming the gloves from Foakes, who at Galle became only the second England wicketkeeper – after Matt Prior – to score a Test century on debut. It would be a mistake: for all the talent of Bairstow and Buttler, who himself was unhappy not to get the gloves in Galle, Foakes looked a notch above both.
Then there’s the bowling. Pallekele, deep in Sri Lanka’s verdant hill country, usually offers more to the seamers than any other venue in the country, and Bayliss wouldn’t rule out adding a fourth to help Jimmy Anderson, Sam Curran and Stokes.
That could mean a reprieve for Broad, whom Bayliss claimed agreed with his own dropping in Galle, or Chris Woakes, who four years ago took six wickets there in a one-day international. A first cap for Warwickshire’s Olly Stone, the quickest bowler on tour, is the outside bet.
Then there’s Ben Stokes, who is understood to be keen to try his hand at first drop for England
But four seamers would mean dropping a spinner – probably Adil Rashid after Jack Leach combined economy with incision to claim five wickets in Galle. And it might also mean no place for Bairstow.
The possibilities seem endless, a position Bayliss viewed with his customary nonchalance.
‘We want pressure on every position in the team, which we haven’t had over the last two or three years. That ups the standard of the guys in the team who have to look over their shoulder and think: “I’ve got to score runs and take wickets here or I’m going to miss out.”
‘If players aren’t happy with their predicament, then they might find themselves out of the team because they are not scoring runs and taking wickets. That is just a fact of life at this level.’
Suddenly, England’s cup is running over. They will not want to waste a drop in Pallekele.
Jonny Bairstow’s likeliest route back in the England side is as a specialist batsman
THE FOUR CONTENDERS FOR NO 3
Since Jonathan Trott went home from the 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia, England have used six different batsman at No 3 for more than five innings but few have been able to make the position their own. The spot is up for grabs again.
Has scored 82 runs in five innings at No 3 since taking over the role from Joe Root halfway through the fourth Test against India at Southampton in September. But his technique may be too loose, and better suited to the No 8 position he filled so successfully during the 2015 Ashes.
Would have batted at No 3 in Galle if England had batted second and Ali needed a break after bowling. But he has averaged nearly 45 from No 6 and 7 since his return to the Test side, and his lower-middle-order bailouts have been a feature of England’s recent successes.
The stellar success of Ben Foakes may mean this is Bairstow’s only one way back into the team – and not as wicketkeeper. He was unhappy to find himself as high as No 4 against India at Southampton, where he batted with a fractured finger and made six and nought. But, assuming he’s fit, he may not be given the choice.
Stokes would open for England and bowl off-breaks if the management asked him, so the whisper that he’s keen to bat at No 3 comes as no surprise. But his second-innings 62 at Galle was a reminder of his tight technique against spin, Ali could then drop to No 8.