STEVE Harmison has been left out of the England side for the First Test against Sri Lanka which started this morning as coach Peter Moores was unwilling to take a risk with the fast bowler, writes LUKE EDWARDS.
The Durham star had declared himself fit for England’s first Test of the winter, but Moores elected to adopt a safety first policy after the 29-year-old suffered a back spasm in a warm-up game earlier this week.
With Harmison a frustrated spectator in Kandy, England turned to James Anderson to fill the gap in the side, with Ravi Bopara surprisingly selected ahead of the more experienced Owais Shah in the middle order.
Harmison said: “I’m really frustrated because I felt fit enough to play.
“I’ve worked really hard to get here but, having said that, I think it is probably the right way to go.
“In these conditions caution is normally advisable. The game just came a little too soon.”
Michael Vaughan leads England in a Test series overseas for the first time in two years facing a battle to preserve their status as Australia’s closest challengers.
Unless England repeat their 2001 success here in Sri Lanka they will lose the second-placed ranking which they have held almost exclusively since embarking on a winning streak of six series under Vaughan in 2004-05.
That culminated in Ashes success but six of that team are missing from this trip and winning has not come so easily to those that have followed the 2005 vintage.
England have won only two of seven campaigns since and with the International Cricket Council’s Test Championship now a tight affair behind runaway leaders Australia, they could slump to as low as fifth by Christmas.
A Sri Lankan victory in the three-match series would see the hosts overhaul England in the standings while India and South Africa would also profit.
As a very-different looking England found out on their last trip here in 2003, a tour of Sri Lanka is a gruelling task.
“It is hard but I find Sri Lanka one of the best tours, it is a great place to come and play cricket, because you are tested both technically and mentally,” said Vaughan, whose last Test appearance away came in Pakistan in 2005-06. “It is also a long game of cricket – it is not over inside three days, touch wood – so it tests you physically.
“Victories and series wins come a long way down the line. You have to do a lot of hard work before you can start thinking about that.
“It could go right to the wire. For us to win the series we are going to have bat very well and certainly the top six will have to stick their hands up and get some good scores.
“We will have to be very disciplined and skilled in the field, holding our chances will be crucial.”
When England departed Heathrow a fortnight ago they pinpointed the opening Test in the hill country as the most likely venue for a victory given its recent history.
Fast bowlers receive more encouragement here than in Colombo or Galle and Sri Lanka do not have a good record at Test cricket’s only school ground.
But the surface is not shaping up to be as green-tinged as it was on first sight.
“When we turned up yesterday we saw a wicket which was very green,” said Vaughan yesterday. “We’ve turned up again today and it has changed somewhat.
“But if you bowl well on any wicket as a fast bowler, or a seam bowler, you can get something out of it.
“Looking at that pitch you are going to have to have all your skills available and be very controlled, which is one of the reasons we have come to the XI which we have.”
Whatever surface he is presented with, Sri Lankan maestro Muttiah Muralitharan is a threat and all attention will be on him chasing the five wickets he needs to beat Shane Warne’s Test record tally of 708, on his home ground.
“He doesn’t totally dominate our thoughts because that would be disrespectful to the rest of their team,” said Vaughan. “But we would be silly if we didn’t put him at the forefront of our minds.
“The likes of Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando are very good bowlers and unorthodox in their own kind of way.
“Teams that come over to Sri Lanka and do well are those that play Murali well and that is what we will have to do.”
I’m really frustrated because I felt fit enough to play. I’ve worked really hard to get here