By Michael Stafford-Jones
- England’s 3-0 series win over Sri Lanka caps six months of sustained success
- Rory Burns, Ben Foakes and Jack Leach became the latest newbies to thrive
- Jos Buttler demonstrated his new-found status as a central figure in the team
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – England beat Sri Lanka by 42 runs to complete a 3-0 whitewash which demonstrated just how much they have improved.
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England are finally on the right track
What a difference six months makes. On 27th May, England suffered a nine-wicket hammering at the hands of Pakistan. It was their sixth loss in eight matches and left them facing the prospect of slipping to seventh in the Test rankings if they lost their next match.
Since then, everything has changed. They beat Pakistan by an innings in the Second Test to draw the series and then produced their best cricket at the most crucial times to earn an impressive 4-1 series win over India.
Their confidence restored, England headed to Sri Lanka with a new strategy in mind: be bold, never let the spinners settle and take the game to the opposition. It worked brilliantly and brought the Three Lions only their third ever whitewash away from home (in a series of more than two tests).
It was also England’s first away series win since they beat South Africa 2-1 in January 2016, which is remarkable for a team that wants to be considered one of the best in the world.
But Joe Root and his players can forget that barren spell now. They have taken the vital first steps towards achieving their ultimate goal of getting back to the top of the rankings and they must do everything in their power to maintain their gathering momentum.
To his credit, Root is aware of this and, when he spoke to ESPN Cricinfo after the Third Test, he sounded a determined note. He said, “We want to keep pushing, keep improving and get to that No.1 status.”
The captain continued, “It feels like we’re in a good place at the moment, but we can’t be happy with where we are. We’ve got to keep looking to improve. We’ve a lot of hard work to do, but it’s great to see us grow as a team on this trip.”
Squad depth is more important than ever for England
In the 2017/18 Ashes, England struggled to find eleven players good enough to go out on the field. Now, they have at least thirteen who deserve a place in the side.
It is a remarkable turnaround, and it all started when Ed Smith took over as Head Selector and immediately brought in two players who were supposedly one-day specialists: Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid. Both have since established themselves in the team.
Then England summoned two Surrey youngsters – Sam Curran and Ollie Pope – and the former was voted the home side’s man of the series by Indian Coach Ravi Shastri and Captain Virat Kohli after a series of excellent performances.
For the trip to Sri Lanka, three more fresh faces were added to the squad in the shape of Rory Burns, Ben Foakes and Jack Leach. Foakes and Leach were impressive enough to guarantee selection in the future, while Burns also did enough to ensure he gets more opportunities to prove himself.
In all, that is six new players who are now a major part of England’s plans and it puts the team in a very strong position going forward. It also prompted the following words from Root: “Look at any side that’s No.1 in the world. They’ve always got some very good players missing out. That’s where we want to be.”
“(And) if we’re really serious about that, guys are going to have to work very hard and accept that on occasions they’re going to miss out. Having that environment is going to keep driving the guys in the team forwards.”
Root was also quick to praise the impact of the new recruits. He said, “It’s nice to know we don’t just rely on Anderson and Broad. We gave opportunities for young, less experienced guys to step up and show their worth.”
“Look at Rory Burns, as an example. Here, on his first trip with England and all the pressures that brings, he has faced spinners with a new ball, which is completely different to anything he will have experienced before. But he has been brilliant and played a vital role. That’s one example of how we’ve adapted and grown as a group.”
Root continued, “We’ve got to be open to doing things differently wherever we go. We’ve done things in a certain way in these conditions. But it will be different in the West Indies, different in South Africa and obviously very different in Australia next time we’re over there. That’s the one we really want to get right. But we’ve got some time to figure out what’s going to work for us and adapt our squad to exploit those conditions.”
Jos Buttler has become a central figure
What an extraordinary year it has been for Buttler. In the spring, he scored five consecutive fifties for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL to equal Virender Sehwag’s record. Then, out of the blue, he was summoned by Smith to play for his country for the first time since December 2016.
Although the Lancashire batsman had not played red-ball cricket since the previous summer, he took to it like never before and made a patient 67 to save England from total humiliation in the First Test against Pakistan.
After that, Buttler went from strength to strength. He scored 80 in the Second Test and then scored more runs than any other England player in their series win over India. He also hit his maiden Test hundred along the way.
Sri Lanka presented a different challenge, but the Lancashire batsman showed no signs of nerves. He scored two aggressive sixties and three useful thirties to finish the series with a very good average of 41.66.
As important as they undoubtedly are, it is not just Buttler’s runs that have been vital for England. He is a natural leader: a soft-spoken, tactically astute cricketer who stays calm under pressure and sets an ideal example for his teammates in the field. When you consider those qualities, it is unsurprising that he was chosen to replace Ben Stokes as Root’s vice-captain during the summer.
England are next in action in the West Indies. The First Test begins in Bridgetown at 2pm GMT on the 23rd January.
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