If you ever wanted something that embodied the concept of the ‘value loser’, then look no further than Sri Lanka to win the first Test of the English summer at Headingley this week.You’ll get a whopping 12/1 for Angelo Mathews’ side to repeat their 2014 victory in Leeds. That game two years ago is one of four England have lost in their last six Tests in Yorkshire, the solitary win in that run coming against New Zealand in 2013.On the face of it, double-figure quotes about the tourists are crazy. But I can’t back them.And that’s because of who won’t be involved. They’ve lost their two greatest batsmen ever in Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, while the absence of fast bowler Dhammika Prasad – integral to that last-gasp win in 2014 – to an injury picked up during the warm-up games puts a real dampener on their chances.England’s recent record at Headingley may be shabby, but Sri Lanka’s recent record anywhere makes unhappy reading. Since that 1-0 victory in England two years ago, Sri Lanka have won only six of 16 Tests, losing nine. The fact they have drawn only once points to their batting fragility. In their last 20 Test innings they have reached 400 only once and 300 only another five times. Seven times they have been bowled out for 206 or under.In early-season English conditions, they just don’t look capable of scoring enough runs to put an England side with some questions to answer under pressure.Sadly, the big prices for Sri Lanka mean there is little value around on the hosts. Even with an iffy long-range weather forecast (not that these mean much) for Leeds, the hosts are 4/7 to win and only 2/1 to take the series 3-0.England are a good side – as they showed with a noteworthy 2-1 win against an admittedly fading South Africa in the winter – but there remain doubts about the team.The frailties of the top order have been a regular feature despite the successes of the last 12 months, and they remain. Alex Hales and Nick Compton both get another chance here after struggling in South Africa, while the uncapped James Vince replaces James Taylor after his enforced retirement.Skipper Alastair Cook and Joe Root provide undoubted class, one on the verge of becoming the first England batsman to reach 10000 Test runs and the other a racing certainty to be the second, while the brilliant but unpredictable Ben Stokes rounds out the top six.It’s a good line-up, but vulnerable. In 18 of England’s last 27 Test innings going back to the start of last summer they’ve lost their third wicket before reaching 100. In eight of those, they haven’t reached 50 before the number five is at the crease. Vince is unlikely to have a long wait for his first bat in Test cricket.
If we don’t trust Sri Lanka to expose this frailty, then let’s find another way to take advantage. Jonny Bairstow is 12/1 to top-score in England’s first innings this week, and that’s worth some small change.Batting at seven need not scupper his chances here if early wickets fall, and in his current form and on his home ground he should feel as confident as anyone.Bairstow has batted twice at Headingley this summer. He made 246 off 270 balls against Hampshire, and then 198 from 231 against Surrey.Clearly Test cricket is a step up, but there are few terrors in the Sri Lanka attack and Bairstow should be feeling settled in the side after the winter. The rate he is scoring his runs means he doesn’t necessarily need the bowlers to hang around a long time if it comes down to it.There’s always a risk when backing someone down the order that you’ll get no run for your money, but given Bairstow’s form and the doubts over England’s top five, that risk is more than built into the price.Returning to Sri Lanka’s batting frailties, and their top series batsman betting looks to be a three-way tussle. Over the last 12 months, onlyAngelo Mathew s, Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne have posted any serious runs. Mathews with 822 leads Chandimal by a single run, with Karunaratne a touch further back on 736.Karunaratne is the outsider of the three and tempting at 6/1, but I’d rather side with the experienced skipper Mathews at 7/2. In the last two years, the now-retired Sangakkara is the only Sri Lankan within 600 runs of Mathews’ tally of 1707 Test runs.He scored 306 runs in the two Tests here last time out, recording a century and three 50s in four innings. Experience of English conditions is a huge positive against what remains a stellar England pace attack led by Stuart Broad and James Anderson. With the top order taken to struggle against the moving ball, the path is clear for Mathews to take out this market from the middle order.
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