Galle: England captain Andrew Strauss faces close scrutiny of his batting and leadership skills as he attempts to keep his spin-shattered team on top of the world Test rankings. England, who toppled India from the mantle with a memorable 4-0 whitewash on seaming wickets at home last year, have come unstuck on the spinner-friendly tracks of Asia over the last three months.
The 75-run defeat to Sri Lanka in the first Test in Galle on Thursday was England's fourth consecutive loss, following the embarrassing 3-0 hammering by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. If Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman wrecked England in the UAE with a combined haul of 43 wickets in the series, Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath and Suraj Randiv grabbed 18 of the 20 wickets in Galle.
England are already assured of a bonus of $175,000 from the International Cricket Council as the number one side on the cut-off date of April 1, but their future at the top remains uncertain. Strauss' men will slip to number two behind South Africa if they fail to win the second and final Test in Colombo from Tuesday and lose the series.
Rankings will change over the next 12 months, but a greater concern for the tourists is the form of their captain. Strauss has now gone 23 innings without adding to his 19 Test centuries, averaging a poor 28.52, and has managed just one three-figure knock in his last 48 innings. He made 26 and 27 in Galle, falling both times to Herath, but the left-hander was determined to change his - and the team's fortunes in the next Test at the P Sara Oval in the Sri Lankan capital.
"I feel in good form, but you're judged on your performances and I have not performed well enough," the 35-year-old said. My job in the side is to score runs, the same as any other batsman, and I have not scored as many as I would have liked in the last 12 months or so. That's very frustrating, but hopefully I will put it right next week," Strauss said.
Strauss admitted his team's inability to put runs on the board had proved costly, both against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. "We have not got scores on the board. You're not going to win too many Test matches if that's the case."
The Galle Test was a tale of missed opportunities for England. The tourists had Sri Lanka on the ropes at 15-3 in the first four overs of the match and again at 191-7, but allowed them to make 318 on the back of a brilliant 180 from skipper Mahela Jayawardene. Bundled out for 193 in their first innings, England once again fought back through the bowlers, who reduced Sri Lanka to 127-8 in the second knock, a lead of 252 runs.
But wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene turned the game around with a defiant 61, adding 87 for the last two wickets with tailenders Chanaka Welegedara and Suranga Lakmal. The fourth innings target of 340, never achieved before by England in their Test history, proved too much for the tourists who were dismissed for 264 despite a wonderful 112 from Jonathan Trott. "Trott did not deserve to be on the losing side," Strauss said.
Captain Jayawardene was candid when asked if England's batsmen had a problem in playing spin. "It's not just about spin bowling, but how you play in certain conditions," he said. "It's about adapting. They have lost four in a row now, so maybe they do have a problem."