Joe Root has backed Stuart Broad to play an important part in the Test series with Sri Lanka but stopped short of providing any selection guarantees for the 32-year-old. Originally, the talk was Broad, with 433 Test wicket to his name, would be watching the series from home as England look to manage his workload and plump for extra pace or extra spin on tracks unwelcoming to the nibble of home.
Now that the Nottinghamshire quick has made the trip over, a starting place is the next topic of conversation as far as he is concerned. For what it’s worth – he has the complete backing of his captain, and Root was keen to point out that should Broad miss out, it should not be viewed as the start of phasing him out.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a changing of the guard and I wouldn’t say he’s in a weaker position than he has been previously,” said Root. “He could still definitely play a massive part within the three-match series and definitely in the first game is an option. But we’ve been away from home for a number of times now and struggled so finding a different formula with him or without him, I don’t think it weakens him as a player or shows where his game is going.”
As far as years go, 2018 has been a marked improvement on 2017. The 35 wickets so far – an improvement from the 30 last year, from one more match – have come at an average of 26.85. Technically, Broad looks to be picking up a few new tricks and, much like James Anderson did, is developing a better understanding of his action in the latter part of his career. Root has noticed, too.
“I think he’s actually improving all the time and using his experience wisely. His action is as strong as it has ever been, but whether we have to find a different formula, we’ll just wait and see.”
One likely change – an enforced one, no less – will be Jos Buttler coming in as wicketkeeper while Jonny Bairstow continues to recover from his damaged ankle ligaments picked up during a game of football in the one-day series. It is looking increasingly like that he will play no part in the first Test, which begins on November 6 in Galle. Surrey wicketkeeper Ben Foakes has been called up as cover but if Bairstow does not pull through, the extra spot will likely go to another Surrey man, Ollie Pope.
Root is cautiously optimistic given Bairstow’s progress – “he’s actually pulled up a lot better than we might have anticipated at first” – but cedes that long days in the field, combined with the sapping heat, mean England simply cannot risk a player who is not fully fit.
“Fielding in these conditions, this heat, for long periods of time could put it under a lot of stress and making sure he’s absolutely ready to go will be really important so that he plays a big a part as possible. “Ultimately it’s about getting him 100% ready to go, whether it be the first or second Test we’ll have to wait.”
The transition from white to red ball started over the weekend with those squad members not involved in the one-off Twenty20. Tuesday sees the start of the first of two two-day warm-ups against a Sri Lanka Cricket Board XI. The tourists are likely to play up to 13, with a squad due to be confirmed in the morning. The format, as of yet, is unknown aside from that it will not be first-class.
There is a chance both teams will take turns batting on each day, regardless of the fall of wickets. These matches often serve to do more harm than good: the intention is to guarantee as much crease time to as many batsmen as possible. In turn, it often leaves those at the top of the order facing the ignominy of being dismissed twice in a day.
Root hopes to have an XI pencilled in by the time England travel down to Galle on Saturday. At present, he says he has a “core”. Shorn of Alastair Cook, the top order, whoever gets the nods, are tinged with more green than they’ll see beneath their feet when they take the guard this series.
“It does feel a little bit strange,” admitted Root when contemplating Cook’s absence. He has only known Test cricket with the left-hander. Yet the wheels of the game keep turning and the England captain has to park nostalgia for the time being.
The decisions to be made for the top three are clearer, somewhat, but Root’s confirmation that he will bat four. Barring “when the weather conditions are extreme”, he states that he “will look to bat at number four”. That means that either Moeen Ali or Joe Denly will bat at three, with Keaton Jennings and Rory Burns opening up. One thing Root is certain of is that the variety of combinations England could call on is a sign of solid squad.
“I think that’s a really exciting factor, that it can be very well balanced with a lot of points of difference in your attack and your batting line-up,” he said. “It’s then just making sure we are really clear on what we think is going to suit each surface we play on.”
Meanwhile, on the periphery of the series rumbles political instability. Sri Lanka has been plunged into a degree of chaos after former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa became the country’s new Prime Minister after the shock ousting of his predecessor Ranil Wickremesinghe by President Maithripala Sirisena. The crisis has led, in turn, to the arrest of former Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga over his involvement in a shooting at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation offices in Colombo on Sunday that left one dead and two others injured.
England management continues to be in constant contact with the British High Commission and will look to avoid all demonstrations or large political gatherings. That will include a demonstration in the capital tomorrow. Security around the team has been increased.