Overseas wins for the England cricket team are rare. Two wins in a row is rarer. And series wins are even rarer than sightings of Lord Lucan and Elvis Presley. England have therefore achieved something quite impressive this month. This is the side, remember, that couldn’t even win in Bangladesh two winters ago. Instead they were humiliated by a teenager.
The fact this game has been won in spinning conditions is even more impressive. 38 wickets fell to spin at Kandy (a world record) and England’s spinners have generally out-bowled their Sri Lankan counterparts all tour. This is quite remarkable when you think about it.
Last winter we didn’t seem to have a slow bowler capable of landing it on the strip. Everyone was bemoaning the dearth of spin options in county cricket, and the future looked bleak with the championship being pushed to the fringes of the season. Yet now we’ve suddenly got 3 spinners who can not only land it on the strip but also do a little damage too. What’s more they complement each other beautifully.
The thing that’s weird, however, is that I’m struggling to fathom what this series win means for our long-term prospects (if anything at all). This was such a unique series, where seam bowling played a negligible role, and Sri Lanka were much poorer than billed. Their spinners basically looked club standard. And it’s clear they weren’t pulling in the same direction both on and off the field. The hosts really were there for the taking.
On the other hand think how many times England have failed to put away inferior opposition away from home? At least we did the job this time. The aforementioned draw against Bangladesh, plus our pitiful tour of the West Indies under Peter Moores, are just two examples of how we’ve underperformed when victory should’ve been assured.
The reason we didn’t screw up – and this is just a working theory – is that our attacking style of cricket actually worked big time on this occasion. All the stars aligned. Although this approach can occasionally go wrong (see the first innings at Galle) and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of bad days in the future too, England’s attacking mindset kept the hosts under pressure throughout. And Sri Lanka simply didn’t have the class or confidence to cope.
When England have attacked against better teams the positive intent has often been our undoing. Our batsmen have been out-thought and out gunned. And in these circumstances we look frenetic and naive. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, simply didn’t have the required resilience or talent to weather the storm and strike back. They basically fell in a heap. It all worked out very conveniently.
One can’t criticise England for the opposition’s limitations, however. All we can do it beat the team in front of us. What’s more, several players have emerged from this tour with their reputations enhanced. The problem is that their emergence now makes selecting a final XI really difficult moving forwards – especially as future series will be played in very different conditions.
Although it was great to see Keaton Jennings make a ton at Galle, for example, we still have no idea whether he’s a viable long-term test opener. In fact, his ton might simply have bought him more time that could / should be invested in someone who isn’t a walking wicket against pace bowling.
The emergence of Foakes was also a huge positive but poses some questions. I love seeing England pick a specialist keeper, and we should definitely persevere with Ben, but I also hate the idea of Bairstow sitting on the sidelines. Jonny is probably our second best batter when he’s on form. Foakes’ emergence now means it’s even harder to fit all our talented stroke-makers into the side.
The No.3 position also remains a real headache. And I’m afraid this was always going to be the case once England decided to kick the can down the road by putting Moeen there at Galle. The subsequent Stokes at 3 experiment also backfired. And Bairstow himself is clearly no number 3. Who bats 3 in the West Indies and in the subsequent Ashes series is anyone’s guess.
Finally, the emergence of Jack Leach as a proper / traditional test spinner (i.e. someone who can take wickets but also give the captain control) is also a double-edge sword. In my opinion he’s the best slow bowler in the side. But you can bet your bottom Barbadian dollar that he’ll be the first person dropped when England select their test XI in the Caribbean.
Moeen and Rashid are an incredibly likeable partnership but they do leak too many runs for my liking. They almost need a Jack Leach to balance things up. Mo will probably play in home test matches – and his record at home is very respectable so I have no issue with this – but he’s still no banker away from home. He bowled better on this tour but there are still a few question marks. If you asked Joe Root (in confidence) which spinner he trusts most, his answer would be fascinating.
Overall, this has been a great win. And we should definitely celebrate this series as a great one-off victory. But I still feel uneasy about the future. After all, most of our runs were scored by either the lower middle-order (again) or by an opener who might be surplus to requirements in the near future. What’s more, a large proportion of the wickets were taken by bowlers who probably won’t play in different conditions. The future balance of the side is so up in the air.
Perhaps the most constructive thing to do, therefore, is to celebrate small individual successes. I think Rory Burns equipped himself relatively well in his debut series. Unlike Jennings, at least Burns has no glaring weaknesses against seam bowling. I also think that Jos Buttler played pretty well and justified his place as a specialist batsman.
The captain enjoyed a good series as well, and his hundred at Kandy was clearly one of his best test innings for some time. I know this will piss off half TFT readers but Root is so much better at 4 than 3. It suits his game better. It’s just a shame we have absolutely no other viable options at 3. Jason Roy is currently batting 3 for the Lions by the way. Jason bloody Roy. That’s how bad things have got. Unless he has a technique transplant he’ll be a sitting duck if he ever plays test cricket.
My gut tells me that the West Indies tour will probably tell us a little more about England’s development as a test side. Granted the Windies aren’t exactly great opposition either. But at least they have a few useful pace bowlers (when they’re all fit). And perhaps we shouldn’t forget what happened to The Lions the last time they toured the Caribbean. I imagine that tour still gives Andy Flower nightmares.
The positive thing, however, is that this very unique win in Sri Lanka will at least raise morale and give the team some much needed belief. They say that winning is a habit. And although this expression is undoubtedly a cliche, it’s a cliche because it’s true. The pressure is off for a while and England can bask in the glory of some positive headlines.
Root and Bayliss will delighted that we’ve finally won a series overseas. And Ed Smith deserves some credit too. He picked a specific squad to do the business in Sri Lanka and it worked. Where we go from here, however, is anyone’s guess. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.