Cricket Corner: Bazball faces its biggest Test as Sri Lanka begin to quietly impress

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Cricket Corner: Bazball faces its biggest Test as Sri Lanka begin to quietly impress
Sri Lanka have built some momentum in their series against Afghanistan
Sri Lanka have built some momentum in their series against Afghanistan
AFP
In this weekly feature, Flashscore's Pat Dempsey brings together some of the leading talking points from the increasingly sprawling universe of the world's second-most watched sport.

In a nod to the longest form of the game - Test cricket - the article is broken into three sections to mirror the main intervals in a day’s play: Lunch - the main course; Tea - something extra; and Stumps (the end of play) - something to ponder over a few drinks at the bar.

Lunch: Bazball’s biggest Test

With India crushing England in their recent clash in Rajkot, the hosts currently lead the most-anticipated Test series of the year 2-1 going into its fourth chapter, which starts on Friday. After producing one of their greatest victories abroad in the opener, England slumped to consecutive defeats with the latter representing India’s largest-ever win by runs and England’s second-worst loss. The curious duality of Ben Stokes’ side is that they are capable of winning matches no other team can but, equally, can lose from seemingly strong positions. They are never out of a contest but neither are their opponent.

It wasn’t just that England lost the second and third Tests from more winnable positions than the first that struck a note, it was also the fact that India’s squad was weakened and weakened further as the series progressed. England's missed opportunities shouldn’t take away from the performances of the hosts, however. Faced with an unfortunate spate of key absences, fringe players and rising stars have stepped up with impressive performances - none more so than 22-year-old opener Yashasvi Jaiswal who leads the series with 545 runs. Going into the fourth Test in Ranchi, Stokes’ side know they must win to keep their hopes of an increasingly unlikely series win alive.

If any side in the world were to pull that massive rabbit out of the hat, though, it would probably be this England side which has had an impressive run since the Stokes and coach Brendan ‘Baz’ McCullum took the reigns permanently in mid-2022. Across the 21 Tests in the entire ‘Bazball’ era, England have won 14 - a winning percentage of 66.67. That is an impressive return any way you slice it. Even if we include the single Test Stokes captained (and lost) back in 2020 on top of those, his overall win percentage as captain is second only to Australian great Steve Waugh for skippers with a minimum of 20 Tests. However, there’s more to add to this conversation.

With a small sample size, win percentages can obviously fluctuate rapidly. If England fail to win either of the next two Tests, Stokes’ winning rate will be just a fraction above Australia's Pat Cummins and roughly on par with India’s former captain Virat Kohli. Importantly, Stokes’ reign has straddled two World Test Championship (WTC) cycles. In the current cycle, which is all that matters if you want to win the thing, they have won just three of eight Tests, placing them second last in the WTC standings. After this series, they will have played 10 matches in the current cycle and the best win percentage they can reach is 50%. Despite this tailing off, it would be impressive for England to even draw the series from here... but there's still some way to go to that.

Tea: Sri Lanka slide under the radar

A couple of weeks ago we previewed Sri Lanka’s one-off Test against Afghanistan that existed outside of the WTC. They won that Test comfortably and followed that up with a 3-0 whitewash of their guests in a one-day international (ODI) series. What’s more, they are already 2-0 in the three-match Twenty20 (T20) series with the final match today. It's a nice little run for a Sri Lankan side that struggle for consistency and begs the question: Are Sri Lanka going under the radar as a form team in international cricket right now?

It’s difficult to read too far into the Test victory in Colombo as Afghanistan are at best a fledgling red-ball side. Their success in the white-ball series is more notable, especially as the next T20 World Cup is only a couple of months away. It’s not always appropriate to compare performances in 50-over and 20-over cricket. Still, if there is a significant overlap in the players used in formats (as with Sri Lanka and most international sides) there is the trivial truth that good form is good form no matter what format you are playing. And speaking of, few batters seem in as good form as 25-year-old Pathum Nissanka, who became the first Sri Lankan to ever score an ODI double ton in the 50-over series opener and then followed that achievement up with a century in the third match, too.

The T20 side is now under the leadership of brilliant spin-bowling allrounder Wanindu Hasaranga. He has led by example in the first two T20 clashes with the ball and with more than handy runs, batting a little higher up the order than typically seen before in national colours. Comeback king Angelo Mathews and fellow former captain Dasun Shanaka are still around providing a combination of medium-pacers and lower-order runs but the real threat Sri Lanka possess lies in their front-line bowlers.

Aside from the three all-rounders mentioned, Sri Lanka can call on one of the best white-ball spinners around in Maheesh Theekshana. On top of him, they possess not one but two Lasith Malinga-style sling bowlers in Matheesha Pathirana and Nuwan Thushara. Add to that the fiery pace of Dushmantha Chameera and towering left-armer Binura Fernando and you have one of the most interesting attacks in the world. If they can keep them all fit, something Sri Lanka have admittedly struggled to do, Hasaranga’s side could rustle up a few shocks at the T20 World Cup in June. In a pool consisting of South Africa, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Netherlands, they should make the second stage at least.

Stumps: The World Cup run-up

The aforementioned 2024 T20 World Cup will creep up quickly. If you didn’t know already, it’s going to be held in the Caribbean and USA with pool-stage matches being staged in Texas, Florida and, incredibly, New York! The tournament runs through the entirety of June. It might feel a little too soon to start thinking about how teams are faring for the sport's showpiece event of the year - as we have done so above regarding Sri Lanka - but, if you have a look at the international calendar, most of the participating teams have just a few if any T20s left before cricket hits the Big Apple.

After the Afghanistan series, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh play three T20s before three ODIs and two Tests. Both sides then play no other T20 before the World Cup. Australia and New Zealand are playing three T20s (the first of which was on Wednesday) before their two-Test series and neither play a T20 again before the tournament. England and Pakistan will wisely play four T20s in May to warm up while Afghanistan and Ireland have a full three-format series to come before the tournament. However, India, hosts West Indies and South Africa play no further T20 matches at all until their World Cup campaigns take off.

There’s a big reason for the dearth of international cricket between now and June and that’s the Indian Premier League (IPL), which runs from late March to the end of May. The IPL falls neatly before the tournament and, it could be argued for those participating in it, is the best preparation possible being the premier T20 league in the world. In terms of other T20 leagues that will act as warm-ups, the ILT20 recently wrapped up (with MI Emirates winning the title), the Bangladesh Premier League is approaching its finals and the Pakistan Super League just started.

Sure, there’s plenty of cricket but very little international T20 cricket for sides to test out combinations and find cohesion. In short, the T20 internationals that are happening this week are some of the last we are going to see before the World Cup with the England-Pakistan series a notable exception. But what does this mean for the World Cup? Well, it means that we can expect a few of the sides to be a little undercooked much like at the 50-over World Cup last year where a lack of format sharpness saw England have a nightmare and even eventual winners Australia struggle to adjust in their first couple of matches. Unlike at the 2023 World Cup, though, a bad start to the pool stage this year will see teams knocked out early with only two teams from each group advancing to the second 'Super 8' phase - another group stage that precedes the semi-finals. But hey, a bit of rustiness only evens the playing field more!

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