LONDON: England have knack of coming unstuck as they chase a Test series whitewash but they will hope to complete the job against Sri Lanka at Lord's this week -- despite clear signs of improvement from the tourists.
England are 2-0 up with one Test to play, but the match starting on Thursday has more riding on it than it might appear for the hosts after recent series victories ended on a low note.
Last year, having won the Ashes, England suffered an innings and 46-run defeat by Australia in the fifth Test at The Oval. There was a similarly heavy reverse in South Africa in January when, 2-0 up with one to play, England lost the fourth Test at Centurion by 280 runs.
Although they won the second Test against Sri Lanka in Chester-le-Street by nine wickets, there were warning signs for England during that success.
Sri Lanka, having become the first team since New Zealand in 1958 to be dismissed for under 120 in three successive Test innings, made 475 in the second knock in Durham -- Including a fine hundred by Dinesh Chandimal.
A typically good Lord's pitch could make life harder still for fast bowlers in London, with the most even contest of the series so far in prospect.
"I expect them to continue improving," England batting coach Mark Ramprakash said Tuesday of Sri Lanka.
"I thought they made a really good fist of it in that second innings -- Chandimal was exceptional. They're growing in confidence... The pitch will be better here, the conditions may be more to their liking."
England's two biggest doubts concern a pair of players who know Lord's well as it is their Middlesex home ground.
Top-order batsman Nick Compton has been struggling for runs, and fast bowler Steven Finn for wickets.
With England having again selected a 12-man squad, it looks as if Compton will get another match at number three.
Finn's place is under threat from uncapped seamer Jake Ball, although England appear ready to retain the Middlesex quick.
With England captain Alastair Cook now having completed the burdensome business of getting to 10,000 Test runs, the left-handed opener could be in the mood to make a major score at Lord's.
Meanwhile England new-ball duo James Anderson and Stuart Broad, first and third in the world Test bowler rankings respectively, will look to maintain their standing.
Two years ago, Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews scored a fine Test century in a thrilling draw at Lord's where the match went down to the last ball. For this fixture, Sri Lanka may make changes to their side.
Stylish wicket-keeper/batsman Kusal Perera -- a late addition to the squad after his drugs ban was overturned by the International Cricket Council because of a faulty lab analysis in Doha -- could end more than six months out by replacing injured all-rounder Milinda Siriwardana (twisted ankle).
Fast bowler Shaminda Eranga was reported for a suspect action during the second Test and is understood to have undergone tests at the England and Wales Cricket Board's training centre at Loughborough University this week.
Although Eranga is still available to play, Sri Lanka could give a debut to uncapped 29-year-old left-armer Chaminda Bandara in the absence of the injured Dhammika Prasad and Dushmantha Chameera.
Sri Lanka, who had just two warm-up matches against two under-strength English Second Division counties in Essex and Leicestershire before the Test series started, may well head to Lord's fuelled by a sense of unfairness.
Sri Lanka batsman Dimuth Karunaratne, who made a hundred against Leicestershire, was unimpressed.
"Some of the Division Two bowlers didn't ask many questions," he told Sri Lanka's Island newspaper.
"When we play that kind of opposition and all of a sudden play James Anderson and Stuart Broad in the Test match, the gap is huge. We tend to make more mistakes and get out cheaply. When England come to Sri Lanka, they play our A team as warm-up," he added pointedly, in words the ICC and national boards ought to consider if they are serious about wanting more competitive Tests.