Joe Root, England’s captain, praised his side’s adaptability and game awareness, after they ended a run of 13 overseas winless Tests by sealing a memorable 211-run victory over Sri Lanka on the fourth day in Galle.
Having set Sri Lanka an improbable 462 for victory, England sealed the deal in the final session of the day, with their spinners Moeen Ali, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid sharing nine of the ten wickets. However Root praised in particular the impact of Ben Stokes with the ball, and said his contribution had been symptomatic of a side that has found new depths of resolve to overcome alien conditions.
“From our position at lunchtime on the first day we’ve been in control of the whole game,” Root told Sky Sports. “And to be as consistent as that throughout a whole Test match, which is something we haven’t always got right in the past, especially away from home, has been really pleasing. We’ve been clear about things, and adapted to the surface all the time.”
Stokes claimed just the one wicket, that of Dhananjaya de Silva just before lunch, but his eight-over spell rattled Sri Lanka’s middle order and gave the spinners a chance to turn the screw at the other end.
“To have guys who can do different jobs is pleasing,” said Root. “You know with Ben you are going to get a flat-out performance. He’ll leave everything out on the field. I asked him to bowl one more and he said I’ve nothing left, and that doesn’t happen often. He could have had four or five in that spell, it was very hostile, and showed good skills with reverse swing. He changed the game, because that wicket before lunch was crucial.”
England’s unparalleled depth of allround talent, which was in particular evidence in England’s recovery from 103 for 5 on the first morning, was the stand-out feature of their victory, and Root admitted that it had been “great fun” marshalling his troops on their fourth-innings victory push.
“We had so many different options,” he said. “It’s great to see the lads really dovetail and complement each other. There were times when the seamers might not get the praise they deserve, but they built a lot of pressure. The first hour today was great, we didn’t necessarily get any wickets, but they didn’t score freely and rotate at a comfortable rate, and towards the back end of the session we got our rewards.”
Moeen Ali continued his renaissance performance with another four-wicket haul, but Root singled out Jack Leach for particular praise, for the way he helped control the tempo of Sri Lanka’s innings in only his second Test.
“He’s had experience of bowling on wickets at Somerset that do spin,” Root said. “To transfer that into Test cricket is a great thing to have. He calls Somerset ‘Ciderabad’ and it seemed there were a few similarities. He gave great control which allowed us to attack at the other end.”
England did well, too, to tailor their approach to suit a Galle wicket that, while not unfriendly to spinners, was not the dry Bunsen that they have usually faced at this venue.
“Traditionally the pitch here deteriorates rapidly and you expect it to turn square and be hard to bat last on,” he said. “But with weather around it’s held together a lot better than we might have anticipated. You have to give yourself enough time to get the result.
“We knew we were going to have to work hard and there’d be periods we’d have to be very patient and trust our plans, and the fact we managed to do that and see it work is really pleasing.
“We had in-out fields to dry up the boundaries but still had to bowl in good areas and we did that,” Root added. “Sometimes when it’s spinning you want them to go for the single and bring the catchers into play.
“If you take the boundary options out, as a batter you feel like you aren’t going anywhere so it can be quite frustrating. In difficult conditions, when you know it’s only going to get harder, it can weigh quite heavy on you psychologically, and we used that in our favour.”
England now head to Pallekele for next week’s second Test with a victory under their belts, but a lot of selection headaches to face up to, not least the potential return to fitness of Jonny Bairstow, who may struggle to displace England’s man-of-the-match debutant, Ben Foakes,
“To play the innings [Foakes] did showed great maturity and skill, and awareness of his own game,” said Root. “To keep in these conditions was a great challenge as well, and he was unflustered. He’s a natural and it’s great to see someone come in with an attitude of pure enjoyment, and grasp the opportunity in both hands.
“It’s going to be an interesting meeting, but I’d rather be in this position than not have a clue who to pick. If the pitches look drastically different we can adapt to that with a different XI. It’s very balanced so going to be tough, but it’s great to see the guys putting pressure on for places.”