Root regime gets in gear with four-day rout
New-look England beat Sri Lanka by 211 runs Moeen leads the way in spinners’ rush to victory
Normally, an England victory abroad would be a cause for great celebration – and there was plenty for England to celebrate after defeating Sri Lanka by 211 runs with a day to spare in the first of three Tests, especially the debut of Ben Foakes who was man of the match for his batting and almost flawless wicketkeeping.
It was England’s first victory in Galle, at the fifth attempt, and Galle is to Sri Lanka what the Gabba has been to Australia, and Karachi to Pakistan, and what Barbados was to West Indies: their bastion, almost as impregnable as Galle Fort which was never stormed as the Dutch made it over to Britain peaceably.
In the absence of two members of England’s old guard – Alastair Cook, who has retired, and Stuart Broad, who was dropped to make way for a third spin bowler – this side looked more and more like Joe Root’s team. The captain, having been far too impetuous in his first innings, was admirable thereafter as the side grew in his image: youthful and keen, decent and distinctly likeable, at best admirable.
You could say it has been a long while coming in that Root was appointed Cook’s successor 18 months ago, but he had no experience of captaincy other than a handful of games in charge, and the old guard inevitably coloured the dressing room and its culture. But Root is getting there, and for the 6,000 England supporters it must have been a delight that more than offset the heat to see such a fine team – all the more polished for the arrival of Foakes – in the making.
Foakes dropped one catch when James Anderson – the old-guard survivor – found the inside edge of Sri Lanka’s hapless captain Dinesh Chandimal and Foakes could not hold on. Overall, however, Foakes brought a polish to the job that neither of his predecessors, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, more made than begotten, had done; he oiled England’s wheels.
The fact remains, though, that England had one bad session – a very bad session considering Root had won the toss for the sixth consecutive time – and seldom in Tests is there an escape if the opposition are competent. Sri Lanka, however, were not competent: they came into the game as unprepared as England, complacent in their bastion, their fielding was sub-standard, the captaincy worse. The crux was the tactical error when Chandimal pushed his mid-on back to long on and allowed Buttler and Foakes to accrue singles off the spinners without any risk.
Having been almost invited back into the game, England did almost everything right: their batting thereafter, their fielding throughout, apart from a dropped chance by Anderson at midwicket and Ben Stokes at slip, and their varied bowling, which featured for once three decent spinners. Moeen Ali finished with his best Test figures abroad, eight for 137, and looks all the more settled, not as first-choice spinner of course (he does not want that title) but as senior consultant to his two juniors.
Moeen helped himself to three of the four left-handers, while the fourth, Rangana Herath, was run out in his last act before retirement.
Moeen had more than a helping hand in another wicket, that of Kusal Mendis, who smacked Leach over Moeen at mid-off for four. Moeen did not drop back, and next ball Mendis excitedly took the bait, ran down the pitch and skied to mid-off.
It does not augur well for a Sri Lanka comeback that none of their batsmen had the application to reach 60 in either innings. Angelo Mathews managed a 50 in each, but having been sacked as one-day captain, he is not a picture of enchantment. Chandimal was handicapped by his groin strain, but even if fit he might not have got a bat on one from Jack Leach that pitched leg and hit the top of off stump.
Root, who knows Adil Rashid so well as a Yorkshire team-mate, threw a scrap to his leg-spinner to boost his confidence by letting him bowl at the tail: Rashid had lapsed into long-hop mode, probably under the weight of expectation, when the top-order batsmen were in. Leach might therefore have finished with more than five wickets.
Root led his players in honouring Herath at the end as chivalrously as Virat Kohli had done to Cook at the Oval, and said in his speech that he would be relieved at Herath’s retirement as the most successful of all Test left-arm spinners had dismissed him in both innings.
Herath has illustrated the eternal verities of Test cricket by bowling as left-arm spinners have done since Victorian times (with scarcely detectable variations of flight and spin) and demonstrating that in cricket, unlike many sports today, all shapes and sizes can succeed.
All over: Ben Foakes runs out Rangana Herath to complete England’s victory