England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 5th day June 24, 2014

Root provides Sri Lanka spark

As Sri Lanka sought a famous victory, Joe Root's words to Angelo Mathews were a pin prick that triggered an explosion

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It all began with Joe Root on the final day. He had been the overnight batsman. Moeen Ali was lacing silk with stone at the other end, and Root was blocking for his life. Sri Lanka's seamers began by bowling full. Rangana Herath went over the wicket, then around. Nothing worked. After a shower, and lunch, Sri Lanka asked to change a wet, misshapen ball.

With all that was to follow on day five, Root may not even remember what he said to Angelo Mathews, as Sri Lanka's captain oversaw the umpires' choosing of a new ball. But he did say something. Root spoke for no longer than three seconds, and suddenly Mathews was alive and aggressive, throwing something much longer, and nastier, in his face.

Sri Lanka had spoken since day one about how their attack might rip through England if they could take the match five days, but on the final morning, all the gunpowder they felt they had could not break England down. They needed a spark. A reason to run in harder, and stay keen in the field.

Within minutes Root was being harangued before each delivery, at the end of the over, and whenever a Sri Lanka player could get within earshot. For about 20 minutes, Root was a walking dartboard. Sri Lanka players who do not give more than two-word responses to journalists' questions were unleashing wordy tirades. The press box watched on with jealousy as Root collected the best quotes Mathews has ever given in his life.

Perhaps not even Root will know whether the edge he would send to gully was induced in part by the verbal assault. But before his jibe at Mathews, Sri Lanka were like a balloon, slowly deflating in the sun. Root's brief words were a pin prick, but they brought an explosion.

Sri Lanka would not have a smooth ride to the finish, but the intensity they mustered then did not dip until the penultimate ball took James Anderson's splice and floated into Rangana Herath's hands. As Mathews made 10 bowling changes in the final hour, like a man searching through his many pockets for some money, Sri Lanka's desperation was immense.

On a pitch that seemed to have died since the third day, after already having delivered more than 104 overs in the series, Shaminda Eranga found a magic ball formed of nothing but burning desire, and sealed Sri Lanka's first series win in England. Outside Asia, they last defeated top-eight opposition in a series way back in 1995.

Root was Sri Lanka's spark on Tuesday, but the past few months of Sri Lanka's cricket has been defined by the will to flourish in adversity. The players do not blame Paul Farbrace for switching sides in the weeks approaching the tour, but the team understood the strategic significance. They knew their own board was partly to blame for the clipping of one Test in this series, yet seeing that Test handed to India still felt like a slight.

On tour, the officials' reporting of Sachithra Senanayake's action, and the Mankad controversy to follow developed into what the team felt was a siege. Then in the days preceding the Tests, Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, labelled the visiting bowlers just "a glorified county attack". Mathews could not help but smirk, when it had all whirled to its extraordinary end.

"I hope my attack is better than a county attack," he said. "There was a little bit of a debate saying that my attack is not quite good enough for county cricket. That motivated us. We don't have Chaminda Vaas or Muttiah Muralitharan in our team, but we have some guys who are willing to do the job, are working really hard, and they're excited about playing Test cricket."

On paper Sri Lanka were outgunned, but on the final day at Lord's and the last four days at Headingley, they also transposed the fight that has shaped their limited-overs cricket for some time. England seemed headed for a straightforward victory with Sam Robson and Ian Bell at the crease on the second day, but Eranga's epic toil of line and length brought the quick wickets that gave Sri Lanka their first surge in the game. Mathews' 160, and his 149-run stand with Herath came in an even direr situation. Dhammika Prasad's fourth-day burst defies belief, given he had not taken more than one wicket for less than 100 runs in his past 10 Tests.

Sri Lanka have played without a break since early December, save for the few weeks of early IPL, to which none of the 16 men in the Sri Lanka squad had a ticket. With preparation having been so crucial to the trophy-sweep in England, the players will perhaps be glad for that. Since the painful end to the Sharjah Test in January, they have won 22 out of 27 matches, across all formats. Of all their plaudits, a Test series win in England seemed by far the least likely.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 27, 2014, 1:42 GMT

    Micheal Vaughn's comments about our bowling attack not being as good as a county attack - Just extend the same arguement. A side gets beaten by being bowled out by an attack less than a county attack. Then what about the batting side that get bowled out by that attack. They are worse . True England proved that they are not as good as a county side. All in Vaughn's perspective of our attack!!!

  • Naresh on June 26, 2014, 12:16 GMT

    @Rakhita...the author never said that SL have lost 5 matches...he just informed that SL "WON" 22 out of 27 matches....that means the other 5 might be tie/draw/lost/abandoned matches:)

  • Ed on June 25, 2014, 23:10 GMT

    Root would have been better concentrating on his batting

  • Dummy4 on June 25, 2014, 22:58 GMT

    Pundit Nasser Husain is always on about "CHIN MUSIC". He wanted England bowlers to emulate Late Douglas Jardine. Well Mr.Poppadum fingers anything England can do Sri Lankans can do better. Sri Lanka comprehensively beat England in all three forms of the game. With the sort of advice the England players get from the yester year pundits like Hussain no wonder the England players do not know what to do or how to get on with the game. Sad to see the likes of Anderson reduced to tears???? Never seen anything like it. Joe Root, Jos Butler, Alistair Cook, Broad thought they can intimidate Sri Lankans. Wrong again. Focus on your game. Try and see at least if you can beat the Indian Team. I doubt that too.

  • Android on June 25, 2014, 22:50 GMT

    Someone refresh my memory. What are those five losses after the sharja test? I remember the T20 lost to England in WT20, 2 ODI losses in England and a drawn test. What is the other one?

  • Dummy4 on June 25, 2014, 21:24 GMT

    Sri Lankans are not too keen to sledge. Joe Root must have driven them mad, for them to retalitate like this.

  • Dummy4 on June 25, 2014, 16:08 GMT

    I'm all in favour of sledging. Nothing physical nothing that could be construed with an "ism" at the end of it and certain words that start with the third letter of the alphabet banned. Outside that? Let's go. Root saying something along the lines of "It will take more than a good choice of ball for you to win mate" to Matthews I not worth an inch of column space. It's a nothing event. Have you seen what a certain Uraguay/Liverpool footballer did yesterday? Now THAT'S worth reporting. I want to see passion in sport. If I wanted it played by automatons I'd buy a computer sim.

  • sam on June 25, 2014, 14:17 GMT

    A perfect retort to Vaughns mind games by Angelo and SL. A sweet victory

  • niaz on June 25, 2014, 13:58 GMT

    I am against sledging. It takes away composure from many batsmen and sometimes matches are decided by not the best bowling but the most irritating sledger.If being able to irritate becomes an skill for advantage in the game, its no longer a sports. Whats next? ICC should use to hidden microphone to record and ban players for sledging... yes not like a single match ban.. may be 5 or 10 match ban...and let umpire award 10 runs to the batting team if the fielding team is sledging.

  • Sriram on June 25, 2014, 13:45 GMT

    Spot on Angelo : Preparations for the series, pace on dead wickets...that is the way to do it. Glad for your team and well done. Sadly for us Indian fans, both the key Ps are missing and we arrived 48hrs before tour game and without PACE...you did well in 2 tests which was the whole series, i will be happy if we do well in 2 tests which has 3 more to it!! What a year for SL cricket and fans.

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