England’s 3-0 series win in Sri Lanka is their first overseas victory for almost two years. This is also the first time the Test side has returned home from Sri Lanka boasting a 100% record. Regardless of what various people have said regarding our hosts’ recent struggles, there are clearly plenty of reasons to be very happy with Joe Root’s men.
Not many would have predicted a 3-0 score line a month ago. This tour was tipped to be tough, albeit one England might still have expected to edge considering Sri Lanka’s plight. Here, we’ll examine some of the key ingredients in England’s latest triumph and, more generally, the series as a whole.
In at 3: Jonny Bairstow?
After two games littered with notable individual performances, the third Test brought us another. Jonny Bairstow’s first-innings 110 was the highlight from an England perspective, although Adil Rashid’s 5-49 also deserves a special mention.
What sets Bairstow’s innings apart from England’s other key performances, however, are two significant factors. Firstly, this was his return to the side after a few Tests out. Having injured himself playing football, Bairstow had to make do with a batting slot he’s not used to and a couple of stints in the outfield. In response, he hit a superb hundred (possibly the most comfortable innings by an Englishman this series) and answered his critics in the best possible fashion.
The second factor to consider here is Bairstow’s batting position. He filled in that dreaded number 3 spot and did it to great effect. Whether he’s answered all of England’s prayers concerning that position with one innings is unlikely, he’ll still need to prove his worth in the Caribbean. He’s certainly offered some encouragement, though. Questions will remain about his ability to provide solidity at three against the Dukes ball in England, but for now let’s just enjoy the fact that our number 3 has scored a ton. It wasn’t a bad one, either.
In our final spinners’ review of the series, it’s a largely positive story once again. Rashid grabbed a fully-deserved 5-fer in the first innings, while Jack Leach continued to show just how reliable he is. In many ways, this final Test reflected the themes we’ve seen throughout the rest of the winter: Leach was our most consistent bowler, Moeen Ali took wickets at crucial times, and Rashid was brilliant in bursts.
As a triumvirate in the subcontinent, these three look pretty good. They bowl well together, and each player brings something different to the table; the big question now is, unfortunately, who gets dropped. While the pitches that bred Marshall, Holding et al are now largely consigned to the Caribbean folklore and Sky Sports’ 15-minute documentaries, they’re not raging turners either. Playing 3 spinners is probably unlikely, but it’d be harsh on any of our current attack if they were dropped. Moeen’s probably the most likely to keep his spot because of what he offers with the bat, and then the debate centres around whether our attack needs a container or a partnership breaker. Beyond the West Indies, even, and into next summer’s Ashes series, it’s unlikely Root will want to go with more than 1 frontline spinner. A few disappointments will lie ahead, but with the recently-adopted “horses for courses” approach, it seems almost inevitable.
For now though, let’s appreciate the great work of Moeen, Leach, and Rashid, and just take a moment to consider their achievement. Between them, they took 48 wickets out of a possible 60 and were a deciding factor in the team’s success.
Root can continue to develop
One of the overarching themes to have come out of this series is that Joe Root’s stamp appears to be well and truly on his Test side. It’s not just his positive approach or his selections that constitute that stamp, either. With Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes now cemented as senior figures in side, there is a very strong spine to the team. Anderson remains the wise, experienced senior bowler, but it seems that those aforementioned three will be crucial to the success of the side moving forward.
That’s extremely encouraging, too, as they can all get better. Buttler is good enough to reach AB DeVilliers’ level, while Ben Stokes also has the potential to be one of the world’s finest all-rounders. A bit more consistency from both, plus an improved conversion rate from England’s captain, would provide a nucleus to rival some of the great Test sides of years gone by. Sides such as the Australians of the early 2000s and the West Indies of the 1970s/80s are rightly romanticised, but we could be watching a seriously impressive side in the making here. All three mentioned have many years ahead of them, unless something very unexpected happens, and the ability to become some of the world’s best players. It’s worth keeping an eye on their development, both individually and as a group.
A word on another newbie
For me, the only slight disappointment from this series was the lack of opportunity for Olly Stone. It’s not even fair to be honest; with only two seamer spots (not including Ben Stokes) up for grabs, James Anderson and Sam Curran got the nod. Stone was never going to displace the former, and the latter added so much to the side in the form of lower order runs that the selectors were definitely vindicated.
He’ll have learnt plenty from his time with the Test squad, though, and will get his opportunity at some stage. That may come in the Caribbean, depending on how England want to manage Anderson and Broad’s workload. There’s less chance all three spinners will get the nod, so that potentially frees up another space for a quick bowler. The excitement many felt when he burst on the scene in the first ODI was clear, and provided he continues doing what he is now, he’ll earn his England cap before too long.
Series player ratings
With the series wrapped up, I’ve given every player a mark out of ten for both their individual performance and the way they contributed to the team.
Jennings – 7
One superb innings and some outrageous fielding has helped to bump this up, as there are still some questions surrounding his long-term future. He could put those to bed for a while, though, with a strong showing in the next Test series.
Burns – 6
One fifty doesn’t represent a bad start, and he’s looked good overall. He will also need runs in West Indies but looks capable of getting them.
Bairstow – 8
One game, one superb hundred. Need to keep him grumpy. He may have to accept that Foakes will be taking the gloves for now, but he’ll be keen to prove that his 100 in Colombo was not a one-off at number 3.
Root – 8
Picked “his team”, scored a beautiful hundred, and made plenty of other contributions in the field. He’d have liked to convert another start, but it’s difficult to criticise England’s skipper.
Stokes – 8
No huge scores or wicket hauls this series, but he scored invaluable runs and roughed up the batsmen extremely well. He was arguably our best seamer throughout, and extracted plenty out of some rather dull pitches.
Buttler – 7
More to come in terms of runs, but he finally looks like a Test batsman. He’ll score extremely important runs in red-ball cricket for England moving forward.
Ali – 8
Took the most wickets in the series along with Leach, although he didn’t get the runs he’d have wanted. It’s hard to be critical again, though, as his wickets were taken at such important times.
Foakes – 9
What an introduction to the game’s highest level. Superb glovework and adaptable batting throughout, and effectively set up victory in the first Test all on his own.
Curran – 7
Exceptionally useful lower order runs, and bowled well too. He doesn’t look like someone who’s only just starting out in Test cricket. Had a similar impact with the ball to Anderson and Broad, which is impressive considering his age.
Rashid – 7
Impact bowler. Not especially consistent but bowled some unplayable deliveries and took important wickets when it mattered. Does he even need to be that consistent if Root uses him in this way moving forward? If he wants to become first-choice spinner then yes, but otherwise he’s doing well in his role.
Leach – 9
Most consistent spinner, and this is only his 2nd bite of Test cricket. Got his just rewards in the 3rd Test, and could have finished with more than his 18 wickets.
Anderson – 7
Impressive as ever. Gets unfair stick in subcontinent as he always does a great holding job. The difference this series was that the spinners backed him up (or rather, he was able to back up the spinners). Didn’t get many wickets, but didn’t need to.
Broad - 6
Similar assessment to that of Anderson, not meant to be his series. Pace was up which is encouraging for the West Indies and Ashes, where he’ll get more of a chance to make the difference.
With the end of the tour comes the end of England’s Test cricket for a couple of months. The first Test in the West Indies starts on January 23rd, and it’s important that we back up these performances with equally impressive showings there.
Expect plenty more discussion, opinions, and assessments before then but in the meantime, we’ll all just agree to celebrate the side’s achievement. No-one has anything to moan about, after all …