LONDON, Wednesday - It seems that nothing can go wrong for Sri Lanka these days. They beat South Africa and then, England in the final to lift the Emirates triangular trophy; were unbeaten in all their one-day matches against the counties, and finished their five-match first-class program with a five-wicket win over Hampshire on Monday, even without five of their regular Test players, a performance which would have given them immense confidence and, a morale-booster for the one-off Test against England beginning at the Oval tomorrow.
One look at the Oval pitch being prepared for the Test brought a smile of satisfaction to the face of captain Arjuna Ranatunga. Instead of seeing the expected well-grassed, green surface, which was to help the English fast bowlers, what he saw was a brown, shorn pitch that would be more to his side's liking.
Ranatunga described the pitch as one similar to that at the SSC, but expected more bounce from it, because of its firmness. The type of pitch prepared for the Test made Sri Lanka's team selection more straightforward than was anticipated. They will go with two seamers and two spinners, a combination which they have used for most of their 86 Tests played todate.
The combination also gives Ranatunga an opportunity to fulfil one of his remaining ambitions in his illustrious cricket career - to beat England in England in a Test.
Ranatunga has already done that at home, when England, under Alec Stewart were beaten by five wickets at the SSC in 1992-93. With Ravindra Pushpakumara being ruled out due to a knee injury, 20-year-old right-arm fast-medium bowler Suresh Perera is set to make his Test debut by sharing the new ball with Pramodya Wickremasinghe. Perera has shown steady progress on the tour, and is the quickest of the four seamers. He maybe joined on his debut by leg-spinner Upul Chandana, who is fighting for the second spinner's spot with fast off-break bowler Kumara Dharmasena.
Ranatunga said that it will be a toss-up between the two, to partner ace spinner Muthiah Muralitharan. There is also the left-arm spin of Sanath Jayasuriya and the teasing off-breaks of vice-captain Aravinda de Silva available to Ranatunga for any kind of variety.
The nature of the Oval pitch rules out a Test come-back for former opening batsman Chandika Hathurusingha. It is sheer bad luck that his unbeaten century which won the match against Hampshire on Monday, will go waste. But Hathurusingha was picked for the tour primarily as a bowling all-rounder, for his ability to swing and seam the ball in English conditions. In that aspect he has failed. The only way he could get in is for the weather to make a drastic change. It rained a little today and was overcast for most of the day while Sri Lanka practised.
The frustrations in the England camp at not getting a pitch to their liking was obvious.
``It's not what I expected to see in terms of grass cover, but I'm aware pitches can play extremely differently from the way they look,'' said England chairman of selectors David Graveney.
While Graveney is not expected to have direct contact with groundsmen, the England camp expected their wishes to be passed on via the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) offices. This has not happened, and England, although they tried to be diplomatic, were fuming inside.
Oval groundsman Harry Brind, who is also the ECB chief inspector of pitches, said: ``I've had no instructions from anyone. I've gone ahead and prepared what I consider to be a firm, true pitch as normal''.
Brind has been preparing the Oval pitches throughout the season to suit the off-spin of Pakistani Saqlain Mushtaq, who has bowled Surrey to the top of the county championship table. The majority of Saqlain's 63 wickets (avg. 16.66) for the season includes three 11-wicket hauls in a match and a career best eight for 65 at the Oval, figures which should delight Muralitharan, a rival off-spinner of Saqlain.
The England selectors had to juggle their squad, summoning off-spinner Robert Croft and releasing left-arm fast-medium bowler Allan Mullaly from their 13.
Croft will now join leg-spinner Ian Salisbury in the line-up, which makes the England bowling much thinner than it was. Between them they have not taken a wicket in five Tests this summer against South Africa. Salisbury in two Tests finished with figures of none for 106 off 25 overs, and Croft in three Tests, had figures of none for 211 off 87 overs.
Thus, England's bowling will heavily weigh on their three fast bowlers, Angus Fraser, Darren Gough and Dominic Cork, who finished 1-2-3 in the Test series bowling averages, taking a total of 59 wickets.
If Croft makes the final 11 on Thursday, all-rounder Ben Hollioake will miss out an opportunity to prove his credentials for a place in England's Ashes tour this winter.
With batsman Nasser Hussain also very unlikely to play because of a torn groin muscle, John Crawley, a good player of spin and currently fourth in the batting averages for the season with 1225 runs (avg. 64.47), is set to play at number six with Graeme Hick moving upto number three.
In a way, Sri Lanka are thankful that England didn't call up Phil Tufnell. The eccentric left-arm spinner proved to be a match-winner here taking 11 wickets against Australia last year. Tufnell also spun England to victory against Sri Lanka in the last Test played at Lord's seven years ago.
This is the first time, Sri Lanka are playing a Test in England away from Lord's. Overall, in the series between the two countries, Sri Lanka have won one, and England three with one draw in five Tests.
Sri Lanka (from):
Arjuna Ranatunga (captain), Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene, Aravinda de Silva, Hashan Tillekeratne, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Upul Chandana, Kumara Dharmasena, Pramodya Wickremasinghe, Muthiah Muralitharan, Suresh Perera.
Alec Stewart (captain), Michael Atherton, Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick, Ben Hollioake, Dominic Cork, Ian Salisbury, Darren Gough, Angus Fraser, Robert Croft.
Umpires: David Shepherd (England) and Ed Nicholls (West Indies).
Match Referee: Justice Ahmed Ebrahim (Zimbabwe).