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Sri Lanka v England

What does Moeen Ali’s positive test mean for England’s tour of Sri Lanka?

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

England’s second trip to Sri Lanka in the space of 10 months got off to a precarious start today after the ECB confirmed that Moeen Ali has tested positive for Covid-19.

Moeen, who is understood to be asymptomatic, will now observe a 10-day period of quarantine, as per Sri Lanka governmental guidelines. Chris Woakes, who was deemed to be a close contact of Moeen but has tested negative for the virus, will self-isolate for seven days. Every member of England’s touring group, including Moeen, returned negative Covid-19 tests before travelling to Sri Lanka – Moeen’s positive test was administered on arrival on January 3 – and they are all set to be tested once more on Tuesday.

At the time of writing, Moeen has yet to be formally ruled out of contention for the first Test but his participation is in serious doubt.

Moeen – England’s joint-leading wicket-taker during their 3-0 series win over Sri Lanka in 2018 – will only be able to leave isolation on January 13, the eve of the first Test. As it stands, he will be unable to participate in team training sessions until that date. Given his lack of recent first-class cricket – his last first-class game came in September 2019 – it is highly unlikely that he’ll be drafted into the side with such little training under his belt. Woakes’ prospects are slightly brighter. Should the Warwickshire all-rounder return a negative test on Tuesday, he will be able to train with the side from January 10.

So, assuming further positive tests don’t derail the tour, where does this leave England? Moeen’s presumed absence is a blow. Despite not being a part of England’s recent Test plans, the side, without Ben Stokes, were likely to lean on his all-round qualities in spin-friendly conditions. With Stokes, Ollie Pope, Rory Burns and Jofra Archer all missing for varying reasons, England will be some way off from fielding a first-choice XI.

Their 2018 series victory was underpinned by a superb performance from their three-pronged spin attack that consisted of Moeen, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid. Moeen, Leach and Dom Bess were the only three spinners named in the 16-man squad for the tour, but England have travelled with a group of reserves that include young tweakers Mason Crane, Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi. It is possible that England will promote at least one of that trio into the senior squad, though it is hard to envisage how England squeeze three spinners into an XI without the all-round skills of Moeen.

If Woakes is unavailable, it would weaken England’s batting almost as much as their bowling. With two openers on their first Test tour of Asia in Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, Jonny Bairstow – who has struggled in his recent Test outings – at No. 3 and a debutant in Dan Lawrence at No. 5, England’s batting was already lighter than ideal approaching this tour; losing Woakes as well as Moeen would only compound that. If Woakes is indeed ruled out, expect Sam Curran to occupy the No. 7 slot. Though it will be tempting to draft in Ben Foakes – England’s Player of the Series on their last tour of Sri Lanka – his inclusion in the top seven at the expense of a bowler would leave England a bowler light, especially in sapping conditions and without an all-rounder in their top six.

Looking at the bigger picture, the positive case highlights the fragility of touring during a pandemic. England’s last two overseas tours have already ended prematurely and while we’re not in that territory just yet, further positive tests will surely put this trip into question, too.

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