Following their emphatic victory in Sri Lanka, England have now won five successive overseas Tests, but face sterner stuff in India
It perhaps best puts England’s achievement in winning five successive overseas Tests in context by understanding that, the last time they did it - they actually won seven in a row between 1911 and 1914 - Jack Hobbs was in the side, George V was on the throne and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was still thinking ‘this afternoon might be a lovely opportunity for a drive’.
There have been long passages in the history of England cricket when to win anywhere - let alone in Asia - was enough to spark national celebrations and MBEs all round. To do so five times in succession? Make no mistake, this is a terrific achievement.
We do have to acknowledge that England’s opponents - especially Sri Lanka - have not been at their best. And yes, we probably do have to acknowledge that preparing to face a daunting India side with games against this version of Sri Lanka is a bit like warming up for a bout against Tyson Fury by taking Thora Hird for tea.
But England have faced substantial challenges of their own in recent months. To come through them and complete these victories does reflect a certain amount of resilience and character. They have now won four successive Test series under their new coach, Chris Silverwood, and established a template based around substantial first-innings totals which has seen them win eight and lose one of their most recent 11 Tests.
Don’t forget: England (and, to be fair, Sri Lanka) came into this series without the usual preparation time. They had to make do with just one day of inter-squad cricket on a green surface in Hambantota. They were also without at least four first-choice players in Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Ollie Pope and Rory Burns and one more probable selection in Moeen Ali. They lost the toss in both games, too, which in these conditions is a significant disadvantage.
And just because you don’t hear them moaning about the privations of life in the bubble, don’t think it’s not hard. It is lonely, it is dull and it is frustrating. But they’ve all bought into it in the knowledge that English cricket - world cricket, even - needs these tours to take place to prevent financial meltdown. The game owes them plenty.
The final day of the series could scarcely have gone better for England had Silverwood scripted it. His under-pressure bowlers took wickets; his under-pressure batsmen (well, most of them) scored runs. They even bowled out Sri Lanka quickly enough - in 35.5 overs - to engineer an extra day on the beach on Tuesday. They couldn’t have reasonably hoped for better.
This was an especially big day for England’s spinners. They had struggled to perform the required role in the first innings. It wasn’t just that they finished wicketless - it was the first time since 2001 that seamers had claimed all 10 wickets in a Test innings in Sri Lanka - but that only seven of their 64 overs were maidens. That inability to perform a holding role meant both Mark Wood and James Anderson were obliged to bowl more overs than Dom Bess.
In the second innings, they found conditions more helpful. There wasn’t, by any means, vast turn. But there was enough to sow some seeds of doubt in the mind of batsmen who didn’t know which balls would turn and which would go straight on. As a result, Bess and Jack Leach’s skills - which, by the high standards of Test cricket might be described as relatively modest - were brought into play.
That’s not meant to sound harsh. Leach, for example, is an admirably consistent bowler. He rarely bowls poorly - yes, there have been some loose balls on this tour, but he did come into it without much cricket over the last 14 months - and, under that everyman exterior, has proved he has more resilience than might immediately be apparent. Illness, injury, a remodeled action: he has come back from plenty.
But he doesn’t gain a huge amount of turn. He doesn’t boast deceptive drift or devastating dip. There were times in the first innings when he looked a bit toothless.
In conditions providing assistance, however, he really can play a part. You don’t need extravagant turn on such surfaces; you don’t need to be Shane Warne or Murali. Instead, Leach’s ability to put enough balls in the right area, vary his pace and flight a little and gain some natural variation, is enough.
This is where bowling in helpful conditions at Taunton has come in handy. Instead of chasing the game, as a more inexperienced bowler might have done, both Leach and Bess were content to bide their time, build spells and trust their own skills and the pitch to do the rest. And for all their limitations, the fact is Bess claimed 12 wickets at 21.25 in these two games and produced an important innings on day three of this game. Yes, that’s flattering. But for a player in development, he keeps finding a way to contribute.
There is a chance that, in India, they will be able to replicate such performances on the fourth and fifth days. Generally, though, pitches in India are flat and full of runs for the first three or four days. It would represent a significant tactical error if they present England with the sort of turning surface which might bring England’s spinners into play.
We have to acknowledge, too, that some of Sri Lanka’s batting was of a modest standard. The aim on the fourth day, no doubt, was calculated aggression. Instead, they hacked and heaved their way into recklessness. Their 126 here was not quite as poor as their 135 in the first Test - there was almost no assistance in the surface on that occasion - but it was an unusually frenetic, soft display. It’s hard to imagine India selling their wickets so cheaply in the forthcoming series.
But this is, very often, the way of modern cricket. When conditions favour bowlers, batsmen invariably attempt to hit their way to safety. It’s a scenario that reflects the predominance of limited-overs cricket, certainly, but also the decline in defensive techniques. Had Sri Lanka’s batsmen trusted their defensive game, they surely would have reacted differently to this situation.
As an aside, you wonder if the ECB would have penalised a county side producing a surface like this. A pitch where Sri Lanka’s left-arm spinner, Lasith Embuldeniya, opened the bowling and claimed two wickets in his first 19 balls. A pitch where spin claimed 23 of the final 24 wickets to fall in the match, with the other accounted for by a run-out. Some of Somerset’s opponents have bleated like lambs after their experiences in Taunton. But as preparation for Test cricket in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, in particular, they do a decent job. If other counties did the same, England’s pool of spinners - and their pool of batsmen who could play spin bowling - would increase rapidly.
This was a big day for Dom Sibley, too. He came into this innings having scored six in three innings in the series so far. With Ben Stokes and, more pertinently, Rory Burns returning to the squad for the India series, his place in the side is likely to be squeezed. He really needed some runs. And England really needed him to score some, too.
Sibley’s technique would appear to be in transition at present. He hasn’t worked with Gary Palmer, the coach who advocates an open stance and who revitalised his career a few years ago, for some time. So while he still stands open, he then plonks his front foot down the pitch and ends up playing across it. This negates the purpose of the open stance and leaves him a major leg before risk. Three times here he was the beneficiary of umpire’s call decisions. He has few release shots, either. Rarely did he look comfortable; not for a moment did he look pretty.
But he watches the ball hard, he has a strong mind and he has remarkable patience. In playing back more often that he had previously and trusting himself to adapt to the turn, he found a way to prosper. And in seeing his side over the line in the fourth-innings, he did what many more celebrated players have not managed.
And then there was Jos Buttler. Buttler has, upon occasion, batted as well as this. He was excellent on the previous tour of Sri Lanka, for example, and very good in the recently-completed series against Pakistan. Here he produced a couple of fluent innings to take the pressure off his partners.
Perhaps more significantly, he has never kept better. Yes, he’s been pretty good standing back to the seamers for a while. But standing up to spin, he had sometimes looked an accident waiting to happen. Here he took the ball cleanly as often as any keeper could hope and looked a far improved player.
With that in mind, there will be those calling for him to remain with the squad in India for the entire Test series. But it is right that Buttler heads home after the first Test. He looked more jaded than anyone following their World Cup win and is clearly better when refreshed. Who is to say whether the prospect of a break hasn’t helped him produce his best form here? Such freedom worked wonders for Sir Alastair Cook in his final Test, after all.
With Joe Root batting as well as he has in years and Stuart Broad and James Anderson showing no signs of decline despite their years, England head to India in as fine fettle as they could possibly have hoped. There will, you suspect, be some mightily tough days in the coming weeks. Nobody is suggesting England are anything but underdogs.
But in 107 more years, it’s entirely possible a new generation of supporters will look back on these results and think ‘five in a row; imagine that’. Whatever happens next, this has been an admirable achievement. —Cricinfo