ENGLAND TOUR OF SRI LANKA, 2018
Sri Lanka suffered a massive defeat in Herath’s farewell Test. © AFP
Go and get the guitar – England have won an overseas Test.
Just moments after the match was confirmed as a 211-run win, one that takes the visiting team to an unlikely 1-0 lead with two to play, the playing XI embarked on a lap of honour. In fairness, it was more to do with the impressive English support as it was the result. Many of those on the other side of the boundary have cheered on worse England sides. But they certainly haven’t endured such a barren run on their travels.
Victory here ended England’s longest winless sequence overseas in the history of Test cricket. It has been 13 away matches without success – the last coming in October 2016. There are a few ways to put that in perspective. In that time, for example, the ECB invented a whole new format of the game. But the real kicker is that only four of the XI from the victory over Bangladesh – Joe Root, James Anderson, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid – were playing here today.
It wasn’t just that England could not find a way to win aboard – they could not stop losing. Of those 13, 10 were defeats: five by an innings, none by fewer than 108 runs or eight wickets. The settings – India, Australia – are factors to consider, sure. But the real worry was the team’s over-reliance on James Anderson and Stuart Broad, particularly in home conditions, to appease paymasters and punters.
Perhaps the main positives, beyond taking the first few steps to wean this side off an unhealthy dependence on the red Dukes ball, were a top-order with a method and spinners with purpose.
Keaton Jennings took himself out of his comfort zone to help England be more pro-active in the first session of the match. That afforded them and, on day three, him the luxury of indulging the slow burn for his second Test century. Moeen Ali stood up in the fourth innings of a match to return overall figures of eight for 137 – his best away from home.
He did so with the comfort of Jack Leach (three for 60) who not only offered control – he was the cheapest spinner on show – but also a regular wicket-taking threat. A photo of the left-arm spinner’s ball to remove Dinesh Chandimal in the second innings – pitching on middle, taking off – should take pride of place in his wallet. Moeen and Leach’s effectiveness allowed Adil Rashid to be the worst version of himself.
Then again, Rashid made key contributions. A punchy 35 put the gloss on England’s work on the opening day. Then, he broke a 75-run partnership between Chandimal and Angelo Mathews in the first innings when the other bowlers were unable to make an incision. Some of the full tosses and long hops on day four were comical. At one point, he even bowled himself into the pitch. It is likely he will miss out for a seamer – perhaps Stuart Broad – when the series moves on to Kandy.
At another time, such a comprehensive win over a Sri Lanka side in Galle might have been one to throw into the mix when the pub debate turns to picking England’s greatest win in Asia. This is their first at this venue in five attempts, and only their fifth in 14 Tests in this country. But this is not one of *those* Sri Lanka sides.
The tourists were right to be fearful coming to the south. Australia and South Africa have been made to look like fools at Galle, with victories setting the hosts up for comfortable series victories. This time around, things did not go according to plan.
Persistent rain meant there was little time to prepare the pitch to the home side’s taste, as per every other host nation. Over here, though, it matters more. So does the toss. When Joe Root called correctly, choosing to bat first was the only real option. Though the new ball gave bowlers something to work with, once it softened, there were runs to be picked off, especially as the pitch held together.
By the time it played to type, with fanciful turn and the odd surprise bounce, it was for the benefit of the English spinners. Yet the majority of dismissals in Sri Lanka’s second innings, from batsmen who should know better, were more farce than fate.
Three balls after the first drinks break, when both openers negotiated a tricky opening hour to take Sri Lanka to 51-0, Kaushal Silva thought Leach’s wicket-to-wicket line was ideal for a lap sweep. Fellow opener Dimuth Karunaratne was itching to go over the top with mid on and mid off up. But instead of waiting for an appropriate delivery, he skipped down and slapped one that wasn’t there straight back to Moeen.
How did Dhananjaya de Silva use his reprieve, when incorrectly given out caught keeper in the over before lunch? By getting caught first slip off the very next ball. Did Kusal Mendis take the single on offer when mid off was pushed back after he’d cleared the fielder smartly the ball before? Of course he didn’t. The only crumb of comfort was two half-centuries for Angelo Mathews. Remember when he was the problem?
Perhaps most dismaying was seeing Rangana Herath, one of the modern greats, not just faced the ignominy of bowing out in humbling defeat – face down, in the dirt as he was run out for the final wicket – but in front of so few Sri Lankan fans. This is a country whose infatuation with the game is slowly being chipped away.
There is a palpable malaise among the younger players in the national set-up. Often the exchange that follows an individual being handed a national contract from the SLC is a reprimand for misconduct. The axing of highly-rated quick Lahiru Kumara for breaking curfew two days before this Test is the third such incident in the last two months and goes to reinforce the public perception that players simply do not care enough.
The board are not blameless in making fans feel so out of touch. On the final day, there were tickets still available on the gate for walk-ups. But the cheapest would set you back 5,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (22 pounds) – extortionate for locals wanting to support their team or say goodbye to a star man who is very much one of their own.
As the Sri Lanka lower order were being chipped away like old paint, a glossy booklet entitled “Rangana Herath milestones” was distributed in the press box. Within it was a breakdown of his accomplishments, statistical nuggets beyond the already impressive 433 wickets at 28, and photos of the game’s finest left-arm spinner alongside other greats of Sri Lankan cricket.
It was a reminder of happier times and a nudge to those still active of the high standards this country has set. And, perhaps, a stark warning that the closest a Sri Lankan fan will get to know of on-field success right now is to consult a book.