The standard was set in Galle, the series won in Pallekele, but the marker was laid down here, in Colombo. England left the summer as a side emerging from a rut and now finish 2018 primed for a tilt to the top of the mountain.
The cleansweep did not come easy. Dogged lower-order resistance from Sri Lanka made England wait till the over after tea for the last of the six wickets they needed on day four. But when the 42-run win was confirmed, the relief was palpable.
For the first time since 1963 in New Zealand, England have won every match of an away series. This is their first Whitewash in Asia and means they become only the third team to beat Sri Lanka 3-0 at home.
The two other teams – Australia in 2004, India just last year – were world number ones at the time. This side aren’t there quite yet, in every sense. They have moved up to second in the rankings but, on the field, the path to being the best is longer. One of the hallmarks of those India and Australia sides was batting teams out of sight. Against this England team, opposition always feel they’re in with a sniff.
That was clear during this third Test. England were 235 for three, destined for a score around 450 when they took their position for granted and had to settle for just 336. A blip at the start and end of their second innings didn’t help either.
Nevertheless, that ruthlessness will come as players become more settled in their roles. For now, the fact that some, particularly those new to the side or on their last chances, adopted and successfully executed an attacking plan fraught with risk are to be commended.
Joe Root has been the architect. His tactics have been spot on, even if there were times during this match when he may have rested too heavily on his spinners. But the response of his players has, deep down, given him more belief in his own ability as captain. Not just that the players listened to him, but also that this approach has worked.
“The way we’ve gone about things here, having to drive that and seeing everyone really accept that and buy into that filled me with a huge amount of confidence,” he said, post-match. “Hopefully this can be the start of this team really growing.
“But it’s easy for me to sit here and take all the compliments. Without that squad of players pushing each other, being willing to learning and improving, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have.”
The next step will be enjoying success on other overseas tours, starting with West Indies in the new year. While that tour will see England adopt a similar approach given the manner in which pitches in the region have developed to suit spinners rather than quicks, other gameplans will have to be devised for places like India and Australia. The latter, in particular, is regarded as the final frontier.
England may fancy their chances if their next tour was to India – certainly more than they did in 2016 – but conquering Australia as they did in 2010/11 looks some way off.
“We’ve got to be open to doing things differently wherever we go,” Root pointed out. “It’ll be different in the West Indies and obviously very different in Australia next time we’re over there.
“It’s about being adaptable and we’ve shown we can do that here, shown we are not a one-trick pony in our own conditions any more and that should fill us with a huge amount of confidence going into future tours.”
A quality that England do seem to share with the great Test sides of the past is a knack of finding a breakthrough out of the ether. Twice in the second Test, Sri Lanka opener Dimuth Karunaratne was motoring on, unphased by whatever England were sending his way. Yet they found a way to move him on.
A brilliant run out from Ben Stokes sorted him out the first innings. A remarkable tag-team effort between Keaton Jennings and Ben Foakes got rid of him in the second when it looked like Karunatne was steering them on course to their target of 301. Today, it was the turn of Jack Leach to do the amazing.
He has always been a capable fielder, but his run out to dismiss Kusal Mendis for 86, thus ending a 102-run partnership was something else. Not even Leach’s mother would have believed he had it in him to gather a ball at pace, pick up cleanly and take out the stumps from all of 50-yards. It was a remarkable bit of work that Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha, regarded it as the turning point of the match.
Before the ball had been bowled by Adil Rashid, Leach was having trouble securing his face towel to the back of his trousers. After discarding it on the other side of the boundary, he realised he was out of position. “Suddenly it looked like they were going to run two,” recalled Leach.
“Then I just launched it towards the stumps and thought, ‘that looks like it might hit’. And it did! I was a bit lucky but absolutely delighted.”
Like a few things on this trip, such as Root winning all three tosses, Leach appreciated there was a degree of good fortune to finding the stumps from that range. “I would love to say I’ve been working on those long distance throws but I’d be lying!” But slickness of the component parts that went into the run out was as good a barometer as any for the hard work England have put into their fielding.
The importance of taking every chance in these conditions was hammered into them and lead-up days for each Test has reflected as much. There have been hours of catches, ground fielding and throwing down stumps, come torrential rain or intense shine.
“Throughout the whole series that’s been a really important factor of our success,” beamed Root. “Guys have worked extremely hard on certain things like close catching – Keaton in particular and Stokesy at slip.
“Some of the ground work has been brilliant as well. That’s a great step forward but we’ve got make sure we keep improving.”
Between now and the tour to the Caribbean in the new year, players will be left to determine how much rest or extra practice they require. “At the moment I just don’t want to play cricket ever again!” joked Leach. His 18 wickets – the joint highest for England alongside Moeen Ali – is plenty enough to keep him coming back for more Test cricket. He reckons he will return to the gym in two weeks.
As for Root, his upcoming wedding on Saturday is one last big event before the year comes to a close. It was a year that started on a sickbed in Sydney, struck down with an Ashes defeat that was exacerbated by another series loss in New Zealand. Eight wins out of 10 later, the colour has returned to his cheeks.
“I feel like I’ve experienced everything throughout the year. It’s nice for it to be this way round, to have come through some really difficult times and to have achieved what we have here has been a really special thing. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone.”
No one predicted England would come to Sri Lanka and win. The turning ball was supposed to be a glaring weakness, as history showed. But in a series in which the spinners took 100 wickets for the first time in a three-match encounter, they have upset the odds and a few pundits along the way.
Source : Circbuzz