GALLE: England captain Andrew Strauss faces close scrutiny of his batting and leadership skills as he attempts to keep his spin-shattered team on top of the world Test rankings.
England, who toppled India from the mantle with a memorable 4-0 whitewash on seaming wickets at home last year, have come unstuck on the spinner-friendly tracks of Asia over the last three months.
The 75-run defeat to Sri Lanka in the first Test in Galle on Thursday was England's fourth consecutive loss, following the embarrassing 3-0 hammering by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
If Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman wrecked England in the UAE with a combined haul of 43 wickets in the series, Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath and Suraj Randiv grabbed 18 of the 20 wickets in Galle.
England are already assured of a bonus of $175,000 from the International Cricket Council as the number one side on the cut-off date of April 1, but their future at the top remains perilous.
Strauss' men will slip to number two behind South Africa if they fail to win the second and final Test in Colombo from Tuesday.
Among mounting concern for a badly bruised England is the form of their captain.
Strauss has now gone 23 innings without adding to his 19 Test centuries, averaging a poor 28.52, and has managed just one three-figure knock in his last 48 innings.
He made 26 and 27 in Galle, falling both times to Herath, but the left-hander put on a brave face.
"I feel in good form, but you're judged on your performances and I have not performed well enough," the 35-year-old admitted.
"My job in the side is to score runs, the same as any other batsman, and I have not scored as many as I would have liked in the last 12 months or so.
"That's very frustrating, but hopefully I will put it right next week."
Strauss admitted his team's inability to put runs on the board had proved costly, both against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
England's batting coach and former Test skipper Graham Gooch backed Strauss to come good as a batsman and saw no threat to his captaincy.
"As far as I am concerned, Andrew Strauss is the best guy to captain England," Gooch said on Friday. "He is also one of the two best opening batsmen in the country along with Alastair Cook.
"I have every confidence in him. I see the passion in him. I see the commitment every day on the training pitch trying to improve his game.
"There have been plenty of captains down the years who have struggled. What we have to do is to remain faithful to all our players and believe in their ability," Gooch said.
The Galle Test was a tale of missed opportunities for England after they had Sri Lanka on the ropes at 15-3 in the first four overs of the match.
In the end, the fourth innings target of 340, never achieved before by England in their Test history, proved too much for the tourists, who were dismissed for 264 despite a wonderful 112 from Jonathan Trott.
"Trott did not deserve to be on the losing side," Strauss said, after the last six wickets tumbled for 31 runs on a wearing wicket.
Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene was candid when asked if England's batsmen had a problem in playing spin.
"It's not just about spin bowling, but how you play in certain conditions," he said. "It's about adapting. They have lost four in a row now, so maybe they do have a problem." AGENCIES