By Michael Stafford-Jones
- Joe Root leads the way with 124 as England’s bold tactics against spin pay off
- Jack Leach takes eight wickets in the match as spinners dominate proceedings
- Sri Lanka play better than they did in the First Test but have much work still to do
KANDY, SRI LANKA – Jack Leach spins England to their first series victory in Sri Lanka since 2001 with five wickets after Joe Root’s brilliant century puts them in a great position.
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England have found an effective method against spin
Every batsman in the England team (except Moeen Ali) has made at least one score of fifty or more in the first two Tests of this series. It is a collective achievement that would have been impossible if they did not employ good tactics against spin bowling.
Before the series began, they decided to be proactive and look to get after the bowlers whenever possible. They were also never afraid to sweep, as Jos Buttler demonstrated superbly in his innings of 63 in the Second Test, and always kept the scoreboard moving.
In essence, they followed this pre-series mantra Joe Root described to The Telegraph almost to the letter: “We have done things in a certain way the last three or four times we have come to the sub-continent and it hasn’t worked. We have got to be bold. We have to try things slightly differently. We have to be adventurous, show a bit of courage, come here and maybe take the odd risk that we haven’t done before if we are going to give ourselves a good chance of winning. I am not scared of doing that. This group of players are not scared of doing that. We are not scared of the surfaces and we are not scared of it spinning.”
Root himself led the way by playing aggressively during his 35 in the first innings of the First Test. When that approach got him out bowled, he was accused of being reckless. However, he was undeterred by the criticism and he went on to score arguably the best century of his career in the Second Test.
After England won that match by 57 runs to move into an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series, Root told BBC Sport: “We said we would play in a certain way and we have backed that up. That is the most pleasing thing.”
England have embraced the ‘horses for courses’ approach
For many years, England stuck to their tried-and-tested formula of picking a seam-dominated attack regardless of the conditions. In the sub-continent, their approach varied slightly as they typically often selected two spinners.
However, on this tour they have thrown those traditions out of the window and opted for three spinners. And it has worked magnificently, as those spinners – Moeen, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid – have out-performed the hosts’ spinners in their own backyard to help England secure their first series win in Sri Lanka since 2001.
In the First Test, Moeen was the star as he took eight wickets in the match. In the Second Test, the baton passed to Leach as he took three wickets in the first innings before seizing his first five-wicket haul in the second innings. Those two were ably backed up by Rashid who took important wickets in both matches.
The stats sum up England’s approach. Their spinners took 35 of the 40 wickets that fell and bowled 261 of the 330 overs faced by the Sri Lankan batsman. It was unusual to see England operate in this way, but the results show that it was absolutely the right decision to do so.
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Sri Lanka improved, but England were still too good for them
Everyone involved in cricket knows Sri Lanka are in a period of transition. In the last six years, five of their 12 most-capped players have retired: Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera and, most recently, Rangana Herath.
These retirements, particularly Jayawardene and Sangakkara (two of the best batsmen of all time), would leave a gaping hole in any team. And the players trying their best to fill that hole got off to the worst possible start when they slipped to 40-4 in their first innings of the series.
Since that low point, Sri Lanka’s batting performances have gradually improved. Their best batsman, Angelo Matthews, made 52 to drag that first innings total up to 203 and he scored another fifty in the second innings in Galle. He then almost took them to victory when he scored an excellent 88 in the second innings in Kandy.
Dimuth Karunaratne was also impressive in the Second Test as he made a fifty in each innings and Roshen Silva scored 85 during the longest innings by any Sri Lankan so far in the series – he faced 174 balls during the 215 minutes he spent at the crease.
On the bowling front, Dilruwan Perera is the stand-out performer so far. He took seven of the 16 England wickets that fell in the First Test and then added another seven in the Second Test.
However, while Sri Lanka were worryingly reliant on Perera in the first match, they should be encouraged by the performances of Akila Dananjaya and Malinda Pushpakumara in the second match. Pushpakumara removed Root, Buttler and Moeen in the first innings and Dananjaya earned his best figures, 6-115, in the second innings.
Third Test offers England a chance to try someone new
Now that England have won the series, they should take the opportunity to give Olly Stone his debut in the Third Test in Colombo.
The Warwickshire made an encouraging start to his international career in the First ODI in October and would provide the tourists with a genuine pace option if he was selected.
It is a chance for England’s management to learn something about Stone and, even if he performs poorly, his inclusion will not significantly weaken their attack because the spinners will bowl most of the overs anyway.
Sam Curran has been ruled out of the Third Test with a side strain, so Stone could replace him if they decide not to bring in Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad or Chris Woakes. Alternatively, Stone could take James Anderson’s place as England already know everything there is to know about their all-time leading wicket-taker.
The Third Test between England and Sri Lanka begins in Kandy at 4.30am GMT on Friday 23rd November.
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