With England’s pace attack restored to full strength and Sri Lanka without its inspirational and in-form captain T. Dilshan, the hosts look in prime shape to complete a series win in the third test at Southampton starting on Thursday.

Sri Lanka held firm in the fourth innings of last week’s second test at Lord’s to earn a draw, but the team’s chances of squaring the three-match series at 1-1 may have been compromised by a broken thumb sustained by Tillakaratne Dilshan.

The tourists’ new captain — who averaged 84.33 in the first two tests — was officially ruled out of the third match on Tuesday, ensuring in the long term that he’ll be available for the limited-overs games later in the tour. In the short term, however, it can only benefit England, which is bidding to win a fifth straight series.

“It’s going to be a huge blow for them because he is a key player, their captain,” said England paceman James Anderson, whose return to full fitness after a side strain has given his team another fillip.

Anderson, the leader of England’s pace attack, was missing for the second test when a much-vaunted trio of fast bowlers — Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn — lacked the variety to rip through the Sri Lankans in their second innings and provide a repeat of the dramatic denouement in the first Test in Cardiff.

Despite being England’s most successful paceman at Lord’s, Finn is likely to make way for Anderson, with selectors keeping faith with the misfiring Broad.

“You have to look at the overall balance of the team and see what the different bowlers bring to the side,” England captain Andrew Strauss said on Wednesday. “The most important thing is that you pick the four bowlers who best complement each other and who are best able to take 20 wickets.”

With a gloomy weather forecast and a flat pitch expected, a draw may well be the likeliest result.

“It’s going to be hard for us to get 20 wickets here (at Southampton), especially if the wicket is going to be as flat as it looks,” Anderson said.

“I think the average first-innings score in championship cricket has been 400. To be honest, in Test cricket at the moment, a lot of the pitches are flat and it’s something we’ve had to learn to deal with.”

The intimate Rose Bowl is hosting its first test, a cash injection of around 35 million pounds ($57 million) allowing county side Hampshire to build a new ground on the site of what was a farm and helping it become England’s 10th test ground and 105th worldwide.

The venue has already hosted internationals in the shorter formats, with England enjoying success there in the Twenty20 win against Australia in 2005 and one-day internationals against Australia and Pakistan last year.

For England to maintain the winning feeling on the south coast and go joint second in the world rankings alongside South Africa, the team will want opener Alastair Cook to keep up his sensational form that has seen him make half-centuries in each of his last five tests, and six centuries in his last 12 innings.

Fellow opener Andrew Strauss, the England captain, is yet to get in the runs, though, scoring just 24 runs in three innings in the series.

More In: Cricket | Sport