Keaton Jennings might have been one of the players to most benefit from this sweaty, peculiar draw played out between England and a Sri Lanka Cricket Board XI at Colombo Cricket Club, scoring a gritty 45 of occasional flourish before retiring, but the opening batsman wasn’t placing too much importance in individual scores.
Whether these warm-up matches are glorified training sessions, last-minute auditions or simply a chance to acclimatise still isn’t entirely clear, but what we do know is that England’s competitive preparation for the Test series in Sri Lanka is now over. Only the nets stand between them and the first Test now.
“You can practice all you want, Tuesday is crunch time,” said Jennings.
“Whether we bat first or bowl first, Tuesday is when you want to put in performances that are going to put England in a good position.”
After Thursday’s play was completely wiped out by rain, Friday at least offered England some precious time in the middle and allowed certain players to make what they believed to be a last-ditch case for inclusion in the team to play Sri Lanka in next week’s first Test at Galle. Whether national selector Ed Smith and head coach Trevor Bayliss had already made their minds up regardless of these knockabouts will become clear in the coming days.
Jack Leach was one of those eager to impress, having spoken of his frustrations at not being afforded a bowl in the warm-up fixture across the road at Nondescripts Cricket Club earlier in the week. Thursday’s washout was another setback for the Somerset man, keen to get some overs under his belt and win a place in the team as England’s third spinner, but his economical bowling on Friday will have put him in the frame, as well as a corker of a delivery to remove Sri Lankan international Kamindu Mendis. Stuart Broad was the other bowler to stand out for England on a day when their batsmen – save Jennings, Sam Curran and Ben Stokes – did not.
Joe Denly bowled five expensive overs to follow on from a second-ball duck earlier in the day, and if these warm-up games are being used to judge the suitability of some of these players for the Galle Test then it is hard to see how the Kent man will force his way into the side. His innings in the first practice match was scratchy, featuring a number of near misses before eventually settling a little against the spinners, but on Friday it was simply brief. Denly was trapped in front by Lahiru Kumara, the pick of the Sri Lankan attack, as England collapsed from 28/0 to 28/3 in the space of 10 deliveries with Jennings watching on in horror from the other end.
The veteran Denly had seemed sure to bat at three but has had the worst week of any player in the squad. While his stock has turned southward, whispers are abound that Ben Foakes could be called upon as a surprise selection for Galle and he took the gloves to keep wicket for half of England’s day in the field.
One opinionated fan in the pavilion pointed out rather loudly to national selector Ed Smith that it was “good to have a proper wicketkeeper back in the side, rather than these batsmen with gloves”. Smith looked on in stony-faced silence, however, and the decision over Foakes will be interesting as it is understood that Bayliss is the man pushing the Surrey keeper’s claim with Jonny Bairstow out injured. The team sheet on Tuesday may give us a glimpse of the internal dynamics between coach and selector.
In the bowling ranks, there may only be space for one seamer from Broad, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and Olly Stone. Broad remains the favourite but Curran and Woakes both bring runs to the lower order while Stone offers extra velocity.
For Smith and Bayliss, it is time to consider how much stock they will put into a couple of warm-up fixtures and head to Galle to decide their team for the first Test – to decide which debutant to throw in and who will be left out despite hours and hours of toil in the sub-continental humidity.
“That’s the brutal world of Test cricket,” as Jennings put it.
“I don’t think your place is ever not under discussion.”
The warm-ups are over. Those discussions are about to heat up.
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