That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.
There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.
This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.
The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.
The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.
As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.
If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.