The prospect of watching England overseas normally fills one with dread. It’s an exercise in waiting for the wheels to fall off – which normally only takes a wobble or two. This time, however, it was different. And that’s because this England team is different. We might not be the best team in the world, and talk of becoming the best team in the world is a little farfetched, but at least we’re finally a proper team away from home.
What I mean by this is that England finally have a plan. In days gone by we might have picked three seamers and two spinners at Galle, and then persisted with them all series because nobody had the guts to drop established names like Stuart Broad. This time, however, we weren’t afraid to be bold and pick a unique team for the conditions.
The strategy of picking 3 spinners and playing positively with the bat was the right one. Yes I worry we still get a little overexcited sometimes – Joe Root looks a bit like the Andrex puppy so it’s not entirely surprising – but at least there was clarity, and it prevented us from getting bogged down with the bat and panicking like we have in the past. It would’ve been easy to retreat into our shells after the first innings debacle at Galle, but we kept playing to our strengths. Bravo.
The other reason why England look like a proper team now is that the spirit looks very good. We’ve finally got a good bunch of lads who seem relatively humble and enjoy each other’s company. What’s more, Joe Root seems to be improving as a leader. One wonders whether he feels able to express himself more now that Alastair Cook, who was something of a deity, has now moved on. The other factor, of course, is that Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad didn’t appear as a pair all series. Root was therefore clearly in charge.
The stars also aligned perfectly for England in this series. Whereas some have depicted Trevor Bayliss as something of a liability in recent times, his previous experience as Sri Lanka’s head coach was hugely beneficial in this series. Few people know the local conditions, and the strengths and weaknesses of Sri Lankan cricketers, more than England’s Aussie. One suspects old Trev was absolutely vital in creating an effective game plan and ensuring England balanced their XI correctly. The squad selected by Ed Smith was also spot on – we said we really liked it at the time – so the management always had options.
When I say that the stars aligned I also meant that England got the rub of the green overseas for once. Normally we’re as luckless as Monty Lynch when we leave our green and pleasant land. This time, however, we were extremely serendipitous. The man of the series, Ben Foakes, wasn’t originally in the touring party and only played at Galle because England insist on playing bloody football before play. Talk about good fortune emerging from bad strategy. What’s more, England won all three tosses, which was absolutely huge.
Toss winning teams have won 90% of test matches in Sri Lanka recently. It worth speculating what might have happened if Sri Lanka had won the toss at Kandy and Colombo? The margins of victory were relatively small (approximately 50 runs) in both matches. It would be interesting to ask Bayliss how many runs he thinks the tosses are worth in this part of the world.
One can’t ignore, however, the old adage that team’s make their own luck. Some might scoff but Gary Player once said “the more I practice the luckier I get”. There’s no doubt that England prepared impeccably for this tour. Their fitness was top notch and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the two game-changing run outs (by Stokes at Kandy and Leach at Colombo) were executed by England players. Although the odd chance went begging in the slips during this series, England generally fielded much better, and with a lot more commitment, than their hosts. Just look at Keaton Jennings’s amazing short-leg catches in this final game. England conjured up moments of individual brilliance just when they needed them.
The other pleasing thing about the tour – and this returns to the team aspect I was talking about above – is that everyone contributed at some point. We don’t have the most consistent cricketers in the world but somehow the XI are collectively doing enough. When the top order fails the lower order dig them out of a hole. And when Moeen and Adil have an off day – they were really disappointing today after bowling so well earlier in the match – Jack Leach comes to the rescue. Yes the team still has holes, and I really worry about the top 3, but it’s difficult to solve all the team’s problems at once.
At the beginning of the summer we lacked an opener, a number 3, a number 5, and a decent spinner. Jos Buttler and Leach have solved two of those problems, and although I don’t fancy Bairstow as a 3 in English conditions, judges shrewder than myself do. I guess time will tell. I’m not sure we’ll get the answer to these questions in the Windies, where the pitches are similarly slow, but at least we’ll probably head into next summer’s Ashes with a few wins under our belt and confidence building.
Finally we should quickly mention Sri Lanka. Although they showed some fight in the second and third tests, overall they looked a poor side that lacked leadership and unity (which is precisely why England won). Whereas everything went England’s way in the series, Sri Lankan cricket looks cursed. Chandimal got injured, Dananjaya was reported for possessing an illegal action, and Mathews was mentally all over the place. Heavens knows what’s going on there. The ECB might do what they can to handicap our test team by banishing the championship to the fringes of the season and focusing on unnecessary white ball vanity projects, but at least they don’t interfere in the running of the side (not since they sacked Kevin Pietersen anyway). I simply couldn’t believe it when I heard that the Sri Lankan minister of sport has to sign off every XI. It’s bizarre.
Before this series began I made Sri Lanka slight favourites. I feel a bit silly for doing this now. Although things might have been different if, for example, Root had got injured rather than Chandimal and Sri Lanka had won all the tosses, England looked the better side and clearly deserved to win.
Overall a 3-0 win away from home is not to be sniffed at – especially by an Andrex puppy – and at the very least England have proved that they’re not totally awful on slow pitches against spin. I don’t think our XI is quite ready to compete in India yet, as Sri Lanka are clearly an average team made worse by the injuries, retirements, and bad fortune they endured, but let’s take things one step at a time. A win is a win. And it sure beats getting hammered.