Sri Lanka’s Mickey Arthur: ‘England can expect some tough cricket’ | Sport

England have been warned to expect a war of attrition in Sri Lanka, with the country’s new head coach, Mickey Arthur, also keen to unleash one of the brightest young spin talents he has seen during the upcoming Test series.

Arthur held talks with Ashley Giles over England’s head coach vacancy last year but, after Chris Silverwood got the nod to replace Trevor Bayliss, the 51-year-old signed on with Sri Lanka in December – his fourth such role in international cricket. It followed three years in charge of Pakistan, a rollercoaster spell in which they rose to No 1 Test team in the world, won the 2017 Champions Trophy in England and embarked on a hot streak of 11 series wins in Twenty20 cricket that made his removal before this year’s World Cup in the shortest format a surprise.

Now ensconced in the Sri Lanka camp and claiming to be “as hungry as ever”, the genial South African is eyeing the visit of Joe Root’s England for a two-Test series and hopes his players want payback for the 3-0 home defeat they suffered in 2018.

“England can expect some tough cricket,” says Arthur, taking time out from a home T20 series versus West Indies to speak to the Observer. “It’s very hot here in Colombo right now and with a two-Test series you can’t ease yourself in, you have got to hit the first Test running.

“England have come from South Africa where pace dominated [in a 3-1 series win] but this will be different. The games will move slower until days four and five, where spin will dominate. It will be a war of attrition and a compelling series to watch.”

Such expectations suggest that Sri Lanka have indeed moved away from the ragging pitches witnessed 18 months ago – “We don’t want to be that drastic,” explains Arthur – but despite growing seam stocks, spin will still be to the fore. And in this regard there has been a changing of the guard.

England have lost Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and only Jack Leach remains from the trio that shared 48 wickets last time, and he is accompanied by his Somerset teammate Dom Bess and the uncapped Matt Parkinson.

Arthur meanwhile feels blessed with options. As well as the veteran off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya – a left-armer with “huge hands who gives it a serious rip” – and the wrist-spinner Lakshan Sandakan, the head coach is purring about Wanindu Hasaranga.

The 22-year-old leg-spinning all-rounder is uncapped at Test level and though his stats from 27 white-ball appearances may not yet leap off the page (bar a hat-trick on debut), Arthur is adamant Hasaranga is the next big thing. Arthur says: “This guy is something very, very special. He has got all the tricks, including a top-spinner and googly out the back of the hand I can’t pick. He is a proper batsman too – he made 44 off 34 in a T20i the other night – and a gun fielder.

“I would put him in the 10 most valuable cricketers in the world right now and yet people don’t know him. He really is a hidden gem. Remember the name, because he is the man.”

Wanindu Hasaranga

Sri Lanka’s promising leg-spinning all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga. ‘I would put him in the 10 most valuable cricketers in the world right now,’ says his coach. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

Such enthusiasm is typical of Arthur, so too a suggestion that Kusal Perera might return after the left-hander’s unbeaten 153 against South Africa a year ago – a tail-marshalling blitz that many believe trumps Ben Stokes at Headingley last August – was followed by a lean patch and the axe.

“Kusal lost his way in Test cricket after that innings with some low scores but that was before my time,” says Arthur. “He will be in the melting pot and could give us some impetus against England’s spinners. He has the X factor and is my style of player.”

Arthur was disappointed to leave Pakistan – a stint he describes as “putting out fires every day” yet “a privilege” and “a thrill a minute” – and is quick to point out that in the 50-over World Cup campaign that prompted the switch they missed out on the semis on net run-rate alone, and beat both finalists in the group stage. As well as a strong rapport with their supporters, his greatest satisfaction came from seeing players such as Babar Azam and Shaheen Shah Afridi “start to believe in themselves” and views the challenge of pushing Sri Lanka up from sixth and eighth in the Test and two white-ball rankings to be a similar case of emboldening raw talent.

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The relationship with the captain is key and Arthur appears enamoured with the one he inherited, saying his squad “adores playing” for Dimuth Karunaratne, the quiet yet steely opener. Looking across to England before the series opener in Galle on 19 March, he sees another team playing for their leader. Arthur says: “I do think Moeen is a big loss for England – finger spin plays a big role and he’s a quality cricketer. But I watched them in South Africa and they have gelled into a good side. Joe Root has asserted himself and developed a style. But they will be tested in different ways here and it will be interesting to see how they adapt.”

In a parallel universe England might have been under Arthur’s watch and when asked if, in future, he fancies adding the role to an international coaching CV that began with South Africa and then Australia, he replies: “Never say never – who knows?

“But I know I would like to settle into county cricket for a few years to end my career.”

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