Joe Root is captaining England in Sri Lanka

Galle (Sri Lanka) (AFP) - Ten months after aborting their tour of Sri Lanka as the pandemic advanced, England will finally play the first Test on Thursday with the coronavirus still causing problems.

Joe Root’s team, missing Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, need a convincing win in the two-match series to keep alive their hopes of reaching the World Test Championship final.

All-rounder Moeen Ali is also out of the two-Test series’ opener after testing positive for the coronavirus on arrival in the island on January 3.

After England left Sri Lanka without playing a Test last March – and cut short a tour of South Africa in December over coronavirus fears – it has been an unsettling time for the team.

But the players, living in a bio-secure ‘bubble’ in Sri Lanka, have remained united throughout, according to wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow.

“Everyone’s together. That’s been a strength of the team, the unity. It’s been a real key throughout this whole period of Covid,” he said.

Bairstow, who last played a five-day match in late 2019, is expected to return to the Test team in Galle.

All-rounder Chris Woakes admitted that chances of him playing the first game remain “quite slim” after being a close contact of Moeen and isolating for seven days.

“I was certainly hoping to force my way in and with no Stokesy here it emphasises that an all-rounder’s role which myself or Sam Curran could fill to balance the team a bit,” said the paceman and a right-hand batsman, who started training with the squad on Monday.

Moeen’s intial 10-day quarantine was extended on Tuesday after he experienced mild symptoms and fatigue as England officials complied with the Sri Lankan government’s cautious approach when it comes to Covid-19 cases.

In his absence, Dom Bess and Jack Leach will be the premier spin bowlers in the 18-member squad although, with spinners likely to play a big part in the series, England could also call on their travelling reserves Mason Crane, Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi.

- ‘Plenty of spin’ -

“We can play plenty of spin if required,” England coach Chris Silverwood insisted.

“They are all here, so they’re available. We travel with such a large group so should any eventuality come up we have it covered.”

Moeen and Leach were key to the touring England team that won 3-0 in Sri Lanka in 2018 and Silverwood said they have the muscle to beat the hosts on their home territory again.

“It is difficult to win here. I read (Sri Lanka head coach) Mickey Arthur’s comments about our win in 2018 being in the back of their minds and wanting to get revenge for that,” said Silverwood.

“Do I believe we can win? Of course, I always believe our team can beat anyone. To me it’s about the processes, the continual progression of the team.”

Uncapped Essex batsman Dan Lawrence is set for an international debut with Silverwood saying the 23-year-old is “ready” for it.

England, currently fourth in the inaugural Test championship table led by Australia, need a series win in Sri Lanka to have a chance of making the final at Lord’s.

Sri Lanka have just returned from a losing 2-0 whitewash in South Africa and must find replacements for injured batsman Dhananjaya de Silva and paceman Kasun Rajitha.

Wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella said their absence would be a blow, but that Sri Lanka still pose a threat.

England are much weakened without Stokes and Archer, who were given permission to miss this part of a tour before the team heads to India.

Niroshan Dickwella says Sri Lanka's series against England will be 'tough'

“I think it is going to be tough series,” said Dickwella.

“Compared to the conditions in 2018 I think we have a better chance this time with no Archer, no Ben Stokes and a few other players,” said the wicketkeeper-batsman.

“But we don’t take it easy. We just play our normal game.”

The left-handed batsman added: “We don’t underestimate the England side but I think we have a good chance of winning this series.”