Jack Leach will be given his chance to prove he is ready for a Test return in Galle next week, after being named in England’s XI for their final warm-up match, against a Sri Lanka President’s XI, which gets underway in Colombo on Wednesday.
Leach has endured a miserable winter on England’s tours of New Zealand, where he was hospitalised with what began as a bout of gastroenteritis but developed into sepsis, and South Africa, where he was sent home early after failing to shake off the sickness bug that struck the team in the early weeks of the tour.
He has also been struggling with a calf injury that required him to wear a support during England’s training session at the P Sara Oval on Tuesday, but as England’s senior spinner, he has been cleared to play in what will be his first competitive outing since the first Test against New Zealand in Mount Maunganui in November.
“I think this game will tell us a lot about where Jack is actually at,” said Joe Root, the England captain, at an event hosted by the series sponsors, Moose Clothing. “He and the medical staff have been involved in making sure he peaks for that first Test.
“There’s always an element of risk when you come back from injury,” Root added. “You look at someone like Jimmy Anderson who had quite a long period away and still found a way to pick up a different injury coming back into the team. You can never really replicate Test cricket.”
In Leach’s absence in South Africa, Dom Bess, his Somerset colleague, seized his opportunity, claiming five first-innings wickets in England’s victory at Port Elizabeth. But fitness pending, the senior man remains a key part of England’s plans for the next 12 months, having claimed 18 wickets in their 3-0 series win in Sri Lanka in 2018-19, and with a five-Test tour of India looming in February next year.
And with that trip in mind, Root says that England are looking to build on the gains made in South Africa earlier this year, and develop a new-look team into a hardened and experienced outfit.
“I think you want to have an element of consistency,” he said. “It’s never going to be perfect but as much as possible you want guys to get experience in different parts of the world.
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“We have got a big tour of India not far away and could face a lot of spin out there as well, so moving forward as a team you want continuity and consistency.
“You look at all the best sides that have been consistently at the top for long periods of time, it’s the same faces playing time and time again.
“We’ve got a responsibility to try and do everything we can to try to win these two games, but also long-term look at this team, how does it look across all conditions and everywhere we go in the world.”
The XI named for the warm-up game is a very close approximation of the side that is likely to play in the first Test, starting on March 19, with only the rested Stuart Broad liable to challenge for a place, ahead of either Chris Woakes or Sam Curran.
That means that Keaton Jennings and Ben Foakes – two of the stars of England’s last Sri Lanka tour – will be waiting on the sidelines for now, alongside the legspinner Matt Parkinson and the replacement quick, Saqib Mahmood. However, Root insisted that there were no passengers in England’s squad.
“You want guys like Keaton and Foakesy pushing the guys in possession all the time,” he said. “They performed extremely well out here last time round and are here as options.”
“In a tour game you want a bit of inter-squad rivalry and competition for places keeping everyone hungry and making sure that no one gets lazy.”
England team v SLBP XI 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Joe Root, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Dom Bess, 11 Jack Leach.