Over the last three years, the ODI side that has fared the best against spin is India. That is pretty much as expected. What may be a little more of a surprise – though perhaps not any more – is that England are the second-best on that list, and they are second only by a whisker. Where India average 58.27 against spin through this period, England are currently at 56.83. These two sides are miles ahead of the competition. Pakistan, at third-best, average 41.45 runs for every wicket they lose to a spinner.
Joe Root knows this, and it is clear that England are not the team they were back in 2014, when during a seven-match series Sri Lanka just threw every spinner at their disposal into the XI, and expected England to fall in a bewildered, knotted heap. But despite the vast improvements to their one-day cricket, England are not merely satisfied with being ranked No. 1, said Root. They want to be the best in every type of condition, against every type of bowler, and they have the chance to build that reputation on this tour.
“Our record against spin is right up there, if not the best in the world over the last couple of years,” Root said. “We’ve done a lot of hard work over the last three of four years, but we still have a lot of developing and improving to do to be No. 1 in the world for a long time, and to challenge in the World Cup. This is an opportunity to prove our improvement against spin. We’ve done it in the majority of places throughout the world, but can we do it here on spinning surfaces?”
England have spoken a lot about dynasty-building so far on the tour. They are adamant that this ODI series is intrinsically important to them; they want to win it for the hell of winning it, and not just because they want to maintain momentum leading into next year’s World Cup. But of course they are thinking about the World Cup. Who isn’t? Perhaps they are also thinking that it was on a slowish track in Cardiff that their last campaign in a major tournament came apart, when they were trounced in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy by Pakistan. Here is the chance to improve on spin-friendly pitches, to minimise the risk of being tripped up on one again.
There is also the recent memory of their struggles against India’s left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav, who started the T20I series against England in July by taking 5 for 24 at Old Trafford and then added 6 for 25 in the first one-dayer before England gained something of a measure of his bowling to win the ODIs 2-1.
“This series just another opportunity to put some experience in the bank for the World Cup, if the wickets there are slow in the latter stages and are starting to turn. Hopefully from tours like this we’ll have had success in different conditions,” Root said.
Among the lessons that England’s batsmen might learn, Root suggested, is to avoid panicking if an opposition bowler is really challenging them on a turning pitch. Occasionally, and especially in the Test format, Sri Lanka do have bowlers that have been known to uproot entire top orders in the space of a few overs. Managing expectations as a batsman, is key to avoiding that, Root said.
“That’s going to be a big thing out here – being realistic and recognising that on these surfaces, you can feel a million dollars one over, and feel like you don’t know where you are going to score in the next one. It’s important to be holistic about things, and understand that the rhythm of things is very different. To score runs you have to be pragmatic.”
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf
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