Chris Waters: Sri Lanka whitewash illustrates England’s progress

England's Adil Rashid, centre, celebrates the dismissal of Sri Lanka's Kusal Mendis during the fourth day of the third test. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
England's Adil Rashid, centre, celebrates the dismissal of Sri Lanka's Kusal Mendis during the fourth day of the third test. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
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“WE’RE not the finished article,” stressed captain Joe Root after England clinched the Test series in Sri Lanka.

One has yet to hear the captain or manager of a sports team declare that their side is the finished article, but Root’s use of the well-worn cliche was apposite.

Although England deserve much credit for winning the series, completing a 3-0 whitewash yesterday that few had expected, they are, quite clearly, a work in progress.

Stiffer challenges lie in store (not least when Australia visit next summer), and it is premature to get too carried away by victory over a Sri Lanka side now shorn of star names such as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.

Another well-worn cliche, however, is that you can only beat the opposition in front of you, and the fact is that England did so by 211 runs in Galle, by 57 runs in Kandy and, after a tremor or two yesterday, by 42 runs in Colombo.

It was only their third successful overseas whitewash, and there are not too many Test victories away from home these days, let alone series whitewashes administered by a touring team.

New face: Jack Leach, left, celebrates taking the wicket of Sri Lanka's Lakshan Sandakan during the final day of what has been for him, and for England, a hugely successful tour. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

New face: Jack Leach, left, celebrates taking the wicket of Sri Lanka's Lakshan Sandakan during the final day of what has been for him, and for England, a hugely successful tour. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

England got the better of a still decent Sri Lanka side in extremely hot and sapping conditions, a tribute to their skill and fitness levels.

They are moving in the right direction, and it was another step forward after victory at home to India last summer.

As Root said after yesterday’s game, with Sri Lanka dismissed for 284 in pursuit of 327 following a plucky last-wicket partnership of 58 between captain Suranga Lakmal and Malinda Pushpakumara, England’s whitewash was a true team effort.

That will please the Yorkshireman more than anything, that everyone contributed at some point or other.

It would have been instructive, certainly, had Root lost one of the three tosses in this series, so that we could have seen his side bat last in the spinning conditions.

Chris Waters

The principal contributor, in terms of the fact that he was named man-of-the-series, was a player not even in the original squad.

Ben Foakes seized his chance after Jonny Bairstow missed the first Test with an ankle injury, to the extent that England will head to the Caribbean in the New Year with Foakes now considered their No 1 wicketkeeper and Bairstow as a specialist No 3 batsman.

Whether that works out long-term remains to be seen.

Foakes will have to keep producing with the bat to justify keeping the gloves off the Yorkshireman, who is not going to give them up without a fight and who will be challenged in different ways at No 3 in English conditions against the Dukes ball.

But if the mark of a good side, of a good squad, is that players are disappointed and even left out, then that bodes well for the strength in depth.

The importance of competition for places, yet another well-worn cliche, can only drive England’s ambition to usurp India as the world’s No 1 Test team.

How close are England to achieving that aim?

Perhaps a little way off just at the moment, but there are more reasons for optimism than the other way round.

England have now proved that they can win in Asia on turning surfaces, something that will stand them in good stead for when they next visit India, and there is the sense of a side evolving under Root’s leadership.

It would have been instructive, certainly, had Root lost one of the three tosses in this series, so that we could have seen his side bat last in the spinning conditions.

But with Alastair Cook now retired and James Anderson and Stuart Broad in the twilight of their careers, it is starting to look more like Root’s team and one playing increasingly in his image – namely, in a bold, aggressive, adventurous way.

England’s willingness to attack Sri Lanka’s spinners, instead of simply allowing themselves to be bowled at, was an important factor in the series win. England’s spinners also impressed, with Moeen Ali, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid sharing 48 wickets between them in a rubber in which 100 of the 116 wickets fell to spin, a new record for a three-match series.

Leach it was who stood out yesterday, capturing three wickets – and four in total – to cap a splendid tour on a personal level. The Somerset man also produced a vital direct hit running in from deep square-leg to break a threatening sixth-wicket stand of 102 between Kusal Mendis and Roshen Silva, sending Mendis on his way in a mix-up that rather summed up the home team’s proclivity for unforced errors.

After that, the outcome felt inevitable, and England have now won eight of their last nine Tests – their best sequence since 2004 when Michael Vaughan’s side won 11 out of 12.

Yes, there are still question marks over opening batsmen Keaton Jennings and Rory Burns, for example, with England unable to choose Jennings as a specialist short-leg, a position in which he performed as well as any man can ever have done.

But both played important innings along the way, ensuring that they will get the chance to continue their development in the Caribbean, while the progress of Jos Buttler and Sam Curran continues apace.

Root’s men, in general, look like a team on the up and can proceed with confidence into 2019.