Openers and spin department leave England with room to improve after Sri Lanka series win

THE Moose Cup is coming home.

At some point, anyway.

Once it has been through quarantine, and so on.

England got their hands on the antlers after a dramatic day of Test cricket in Galle, where 15 wickets tumbled on day four as the tourists triumphed by six wickets.

England's Joe Root on his way to a century against Sri Lanka in the second Test match in Galle. (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)England's Joe Root on his way to a century against Sri Lanka in the second Test match in Galle. (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)
England's Joe Root on his way to a century against Sri Lanka in the second Test match in Galle. (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)

As so often happens when there is near-parity on first innings deep into a game, with England adding five to their overnight score to be dismissed for 344 in reply to 381, the third innings of the contest proved decisive.

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A mediocre and inexperienced Sri Lanka side were skittled for 126, leaving England 164 to take the two-match series 2-0.

The target would have been even more agreeable but for a ninth-wicket stand of 48 between Lasith Embuldeniya, who top-scored with 40 from the No 10 position, and Suranga Lakhmal, who lifted their team from 78-8.

To say that Embuldeniya, the left-arm spinner who took 7-137 in the first innings and 3-73 in the second, did not deserve to be on the losing side is an understatement.

Joe Root drives the ball (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)Joe Root drives the ball (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)
Joe Root drives the ball (Picture: Sri Lankan Cricket via Danny Reuben at ECB)

It would have been even more of a travesty, though, had that happened to Joe Root, who scored 426 runs in the two games at an average of 106.5.

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Only Wally Hammond with 563 runs in New Zealand in 1933 has scored more for England in a two-match series, and the Kiwis were then a nascent Test nation, a world away from the No 1 combination now led by Kane Williamson.

For Root, this was as near-perfect a start to 2021 as he could have wished for on a personal level, having gone through last year without a Test hundred.

Root needed to reassert himself as one of the game’s premier batsmen and he did so in the most emphatic fashion, playing spin superbly through a combination of fast footwork, decisive decision-making and outstanding sweeping, whether conventionally or otherwise.

Root has now led England to five away Test wins on the bounce – the first time that England have done that since 1914 – and he has the bit between his teeth as a challenging year continues now with four Tests in India.

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Small wonder that he was named the “Moose Man of the Series”, perhaps not the accolade that he will look back on with the most pride when his career finally ends but one that was thoroughly merited.

India will present both Root and England with a much tougher test, not least on the back of their 2-1 win in Australia recently.

Might England upset the formbook in a similar way? A lot of bookmakers would be out of pocket if they do, with India red-hot favourites.

For now, England can reflect on an encouraging start to the year, albeit not one without blemish or room for improvement.

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Despite a fine unbeaten 56 yesterday from Dominic Sibley, question marks remain against the England opening batsman and also his partner in this series, Zak Crawley, while England’s spinners are a work in progress.

That progress is evident, however, was obvious in the way that Sibley fought back strongly after a poor start to the series and the way in which spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach each took four wickets in Sri Lanka’s second innings.

With Root taking the other two wickets with his off-spin, it meant that all 10 Sri Lanka wickets fell to spin in the second innings, just as all 10 had fallen to seam in the first innings, the first time that has happened in Tests.

As well as Bess and Leach bowled, Sri Lanka panicked like a side unaccustomed to winning.

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Too many wickets were gifted and the result of poor thinking and shot selection, the hosts reprising their first day performance in the opening Test when they were dismissed for 135 in 46.1 overs at the same ground, a capitulation that set the tone for the series.

Enbuldeniya carried Sri Lanka’s bowling even more than Root carried England’s batting, and Embuldeniya not only lacked support but also breaks for rest.

As his fingers tired, he occasionally lost control of his length, understandable given a heavy workload.

After the rarity of a failure for Root, who gloved an attempted sweep into his stumps, Sibley needed an ally and he found one in Jos Buttler, whose 46 from 48 balls – the pair sharing an unbroken fifth-wicket partnership of 75 – took pressure off his partner by dint of his fast rate of scoring.

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Sri Lanka allowed Sibley to rotate the strike too easily and they also dropped Buttler on 18 when the total was 124, spinner Ramesh Mendis unable to take a difficult opportunity diving to his left off his own bowling and thumping the turf in frustration.

It was Sri Lanka’s last hope.

People will point to Sri Lanka’s lack of quality, but the old adage that you can only beat what is in front of you is an old adage for a reason.

For England and Root, it was a case of “job done” at the start of Ashes year.

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