First Test preview: Sri Lanka v Australia

It's No 4 against No 5, pace against spin, and both sides are under new leadership but still harbour their former captains. Tristan Holme feels Sri Lanka should be favourites.

In the one-day series we had the two top-ranked sides in the world taking each other on, yet the Test series is undoubtedly the one which carries more interest, even if it's number four against number five. Neither side looks ready to challenge for the top honours in Test cricket, but Australia beginning the healing process from the Ashes and Sri Lanka's side continue their battle against maladministration.

There's also the fact that Australia have not toured Sri Lanka since 2004, and that the only survivor from that tour in the current squad is Ricky Ponting. Of course they've only ever lost one Test to Sri Lanka, but with an inexperienced side it will take some effort for Australia to win the series in fairly unfamiliar conditions.

With both of them under new leadership but still harbouring their former captains, there are enough subplots to keep even the neutral interested.

That said, it's not as if the hosts are in fantastic form in Test cricket, having won only one of their last 12 matches. They haven't tasted victory since their champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan was carried shoulder-high off the field on which Wednesday's Test will be played. Even if a high percentage of those Tests have been drawn due to bad weather, there's no doubt that the bowlers have been struggling to fill the gap created by Muralitharan's retirement and it is here where the series will be decided.

It's probably fair to say that the hosts are slight favourites due to their strong middle order and experienced spin department, but it remains to be seen whether they can take the 20 wickets to force results on slow pitches, with rain likely to intervene at some stage of every Test. The top seven more or less pick themselves, but which four bowlers will be entrusted by the selectors?

With Angelo Mathews not fit enough to be more than a third seamer, it seems likely that Chanaka Welegedera and Suranga Lakmal will take the new ball, leaving Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv to fill the remaining two places. Although Mendis hasn't been favoured in Tests recently, he may yet be able to ride on his domination of the Australian batsmen in the Twenty20s, even if they seemed to have worked him out a bit in the one-dayers.

Meanwhile, Australia have noted the dry pitch but sound as if they will stick to their traditional strength of fast bowling, rather than play two fairly ordinary spinners just for the sake of it. Neither Michael Beer nor Nathan Lyon is likely to strike fear into Sri Lankan hearts, and so with Trent Copeland showing signs of promise Michael Clarke has hinted that a three-pronged seam attack is likely, with the debutant supporting Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris.

What we're therefore likely to have is a clash of cricket cultures: the pace of Australia against the spin of Sri Lanka on a dry surface which will take turn but could also reverse swing.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>Sri Lanka:</i> The batting looks strong, but can the bowlers take the 20 wickets required to win a Test match? The pressure will be on <b>Rangana Herath</b> and his fellow spinner(s) to come up with the goods.

<i>Australia:</i> Arguably Australia's best player of spin, runs for <b>Michael Clarke</b> would do a huge amount of good for the new skipper as he looks to lead from the front. After a dreadful Ashes series he needs them on a personal level, but he also needs to be the glue in Australia's middle order with a rookie due to come in at number six in the form of Usman Khawaja.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><BR>November 2007, Second Test: Australia won by 96 runs in Hobart<br>November 2007, First Test: Australia won by and innings and 40 runs in Brisbane<br>July 2004, Second Test: Match drawn in Cairns<br>July 2004, First Test: Australia won by 149 runs in Darwin<br>March 2004, Third Test: Australia won by 121 runs in Colombo

<b>Prediction</b><br>The weather forecast looks bad, but experience has told us that they can often be hugely pessimistic. With a very dry pitch on offer <b>Sri Lanka</b> will have every chance of forcing a result, so we're backing them to do so.

Online betting firm <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Sky Bet</b></a> has the draw as favourite in the betting for the first Test. Visit Sky Bet for the latest <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>cricket betting</b></a>.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>Sri Lanka:</i> Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), Tharanga Paranavitana, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), Angelo Mathews, Suranga Lakmal, Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis, Chanaka Welegedara.

<i>Australia:</i> Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke (capt), Michael Hussey, Usman Khawaja, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Trent Copeland, Nathan Lyon.

<b>Dates:</b> 31 August – 4 September<br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:00 – 12:00 (04:30 – 06:30 GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 12:40- 14:40 (07:10- 09:10 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:00 – 17:00 (09:30 – 11:30 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> Richard Kettleborough and Aleem Dar<br><B>Third umpire:</B> Tony Hill<BR><b>Match referee:</b> Chris Broad

<B>Tristan Holme</B>