How, then, do you follow up one of England's most significant performances in years?
The victory over Sri Lanka at Galle might not seem huge in isolation, but it was a first overseas victory in 13 Test matches - of which ten were defeats - as England failed to find the formula for success away from the temperate climate, county grounds and swinging conditions they know so well. But it was not just significant because of the tourists’ usual travel sickness, it carried extra weight because the Sri Lankans had beaten Australia, South Africa and the West Indies by a combined score of 7-0 at home over the past three years. They might lack the stars of years gone by, but in their own backyard they’re nearly unstoppable. England stopped them.
Now England have the chance to derail them completely, though there is an element of the hosts helping out where they can. While skipper Dinesh Chandimal’s injury is a blow that nobody could have prevented, there is a swirling of dysfunction around this team that manifests itself with a new problem every couple of days. On the eve of the series it was Lahiru Kumara being expelled from the squad for disciplinary reasons and as England arrived in Kandy, they found that spinner Akila Dananjaya had been reported for a suspect action and team manager Charith Senanyake had quit after the break down of his relationship with the head coach.
Such issues crop up just as the hosts lost Rangana Herath to retirement after his much-celebrated swansong at Galle. It is a sad indictment of this current Sri Lankan crop that losing a 40-year-old spinner severely dents them but the reality is that with Herath - the leading all-time wicket-taker among left-armers - now gone, it might be the first time in 20 years that Sri Lanka has no real star player at any position. Dilruwan Perera was the dangerman in the first Test and he leads their spin attack now, but he is no spring chicken at 36. Kumara’s expulsion before the series for breaking curfew was disappointing on a disciplinary level but he was also a promising young seamer who had caused England the most problems in the warm-up matches. With such dysfunction and a lack of quality on show in the opener, what stands in the way of a historic England series win after just two Tests?
Well, Pallekele for a start. The heat is going to be a factor with the mercury rising a few ticks higher than down by the ocean at Galle, where a cooling storm is never far away and the breeze glides in from the Indian Ocean. Surrounded by jungle and hills, this ground is undoubtedly a fine Test match setting but five days out in the middle here will show why Test cricket is such a physical and mental examination. England’s players, though buoyed by a brilliant win in the opener, are acutely aware of that.
“We did play very well last time around but we’ve got to back that up here,” said Joe Root.
“We can’t turn up here expecting more of the same: we’re going to have to play some really smart cricket.
“There are going to be certain challenges that will be different. We’re going to have to address them and counter them very well. I’m sure that they’ll be wanting to make a response. They’ll be hurting after last week so we’re going to have to be on top of our game.”
What England’s game will look like is still in question, but gradually the pieces of that puzzle are becoming evermore visible.
For a start, Root confirmed that Ben Foakes will keep wicket for England after his stunning debut. Moeen Ali is unlikely to bat at three after failing in both innings at Galle but Trevor Bayliss revealed this weekend that Jos Buttler would have come in up the order had England ended up bowling second and Ali needed a rest after carrying the load as a frontline spinner. Buttler, then, is in contention to come in after the first wicket but so too is Ben Stokes, Joe Denly and the recovering Jonny Bairstow - though Root admitted he won’t be 100% fit if he plays this week.
“There’s that many options at three you could pretty much name half the side,” Root added.
“We are very blessed with a team full of all-rounders that are very capable to bat from three to eight in our batting order.”
Both Root and Bayliss have made a big point of that flexibility throughout this tour. The words ‘options’ and ‘versatility’ have come up regularly. A squad with five wicketkeeper-batsmen and a gaggle of bowling all-rounders will do that for you and it has become increasingly obvious as time passes that they have attacked this serious as a standalone unit where in previous years they’ve been trying to settle a team or find players for the future. The emphasis is on winning now, and playing whoever is best-suited to the specific environment and situation in order to achieve that.
On the eve of the second Test, Root finally laid it out in simple language.
“You look at the side what we played and this squad of players, we’ve come here with a real plan to go and win this series and done everything possible to do that. I think it’s really important that that’s the main focus for this group of players. We’ve got a great opportunity now being one-nil up, going into this game. We’ve got to pick the best side to win this game.
“Of course you want to try and bed players in when you can and you want them settled to a degree. But ultimately it’s about the here and now and winning games of cricket.
“We won’t waver too much in the near-future. It might be that certain XI play in these conditions, it might change drastically in the summer. But ultimately, as I’ve always said since we’ve been here, it’s about the squad and collectively us doing something together.”
They’re close to doing something special, too. Winning a series in Sri Lanka, a first series in Asia since 2012, would be a hugely significant step for a young team that is beginning to find its identity.
How, then, do you follow up one of England’s most significant performances in years? By winning the series, it would seem. And England feel they are ready to do just that.
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