England have confirmed an unchanged team for the second Test in Pallekele. Ben Stokes will bat at No. 3 in place of Moeen Ali, who endured a poor Test with the bat in Galle and will drop to No. 6.
Stokes’ technique – and, increasingly, his temperament – are rated highly by the England management. While there was some consideration to his workload, given he will be expected to inject some pace into the England bowling attack and also field in the cordon to the seamers and at slip to the spinners, he was ultimately considered more suited to the No. 3 position than Jos Buttler, who will bat at No. 5.
Joe Root has stressed, however, that the batting order should be viewed as somewhat flexible. Buttler was scheduled to come in at No. 3 in Galle if England had bowled first in order to provide Moeen with a break. It’s not impossible he could yet do so.
“Ben’s game is in good shape and he is more than capable of batting at No. 3,” Root said. “We are in a fortunate position that many in the side could bat in that position. Ben’s technique is sound and he will be able to adapt to this role. He is one of the fittest guys in the side, so the intensity of batting in the top order and bowling as one of our three seamers will not faze him.
“If we feel that he has done a tremendous workload with the ball, then we can adapt and alter the order if it’s necessary, but I don’t expect that to happen. Ben is relishing the added responsibility of doing the job.”
Perhaps more significant is confirmation from the England camp that Jonny Bairstow was considered fit and available for selection but has not been recalled.
The emergence of Ben Foakes, who rendered himself undroppable after an outstanding debut in Galle, has squeezed Bairstow out of the side. Now without the allrounder status enjoyed by Moeen and Stokes with which to boost his selection chances, Bairstow has found himself competing for a spot as a specialist batsman. Unwilling – and perhaps unsuited – to batting at the top of the order (he has made no secret of his reluctance to bat in the top four in red-ball cricket), he was effectively up against Buttler for the final spot in the side. Buttler averages 35.97 in Test cricket; Bairstow 37.19.
While the catalyst to Bairstow’s exclusion was the ankle injury sustained during the ODI series that provided Foakes with an opportunity, the roots of this issue go back a little further.
Since he was moved to No. 5 in May – a move with which he was never entirely comfortable; he has scored all five of his Test centuries at Nos. 6 and 7 – Bairstow has averaged 23.16 in seven Tests. He has also been dismissed for a duck in each of his last three Tests. Over the last two-years, his Test average is 32.77.
He was unsettled, too, by talk of losing the gloves. At first, Buttler appeared to be his main rival for the position, but the arrival of Foakes at international level has increased the competition. While he clearly has the ability to reclaim a place in the side, he may need to embrace batting out of position – possibly even at No. 3 – to do so.
“Jonny was available for selection,” Root said. “Trevor Bayliss and I have spoken to him about finding the right balance for this Test with the conditions we are expecting. He understands the situation and is aware that we have to pick the side that is best suited to conditions we can expect in Kandy. It is unfortunate that he missed out through injury in the first Test. He is a integral part of our plans and is a key member of our core squad and his experience around the group is important.”
While England arrived in Kandy with some thoughts of playing a fourth seamer instead of a third spinner, an inspection of the pitch has provoked a rethink. With Sri Lanka somewhat disappointed in the amount of assistance the surface in Galle provided their spinners, the Pallekele pitch is already unusually dry and is expected to provide more help for slow bowlers.
“Having had a good look at the surface today, we feel the side that won the first Test will give us the best opportunity for us to get something out of this Test,” Root said. “The surface is dry and it will spin. The balance of the team is ideal for these conditions. We can also adapt, if the situation dictates, as we showed in Galle.”
England have struggled to maintain a settled batting line-up pretty much since Andrew Strauss’ retirement in 2012. While Moeen has batted everywhere between No. 1 and No. 9, Stokes will now have batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 11. Root likes to talk of flexibility, but that hints at a certain level of chaos.