England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Headingley, 3rd day May 22, 2016

England's mastery of swinging conditions cannot mask progress

Sri Lanka are not the first touring team to struggle in typical English conditions, but that fact does not detract from James Anderson's magnificence

During Graham Gooch's spell as England captain, he once ruefully reflected on his team's media coverage with the observation that, when England lost they were labelled as rubbish but, when they won, the opposition were labelled as rubbish. Wins were rare; credit was almost non-existent.

It was a phrase that came to mind as England thrashed Sri Lanka within six sessions of playing time in Leeds. Never have Sri Lanka faced fewer deliveries for a defeat. It was only a contest in the sense that seal clubbing is a contest.

So, was this a brilliant England performance? Or the sort of meaningless victory the likes of Frank Bruno and Audley Harrison used to enjoy against deadbeat opponents during the early stages of their professional boxing careers? If memory serves, Harrison was once taken to 10 rounds by a sack of potatoes on which someone had drawn a face. One of the judges had it as the winner.

First the case for dismissing this result: England benefited hugely from home advantage. This was the sort of pitch that James Anderson would like to buy lingerie and whisk to Paris for the weekend; the sort of pitch the Sri Lankan batsmen will wake up screaming about in 20 years; the sort of pitch that new regulations in County Championship cricket are designed to outlaw. Had it been any more archetypically English, Nigel Farage would warn that the EU were about to ban it.

We know, in these conditions, England are very hard to beat. We know they have, in Anderson and Stuart Broad, bowlers with the skills and experience to exploit such circumstances. We know, too, that nowhere else in the world will such conditions be encountered. England are, almost certainly, the best side in the world in such conditions. Nobody is claiming that makes them the best side in the world and everyone knows that, if they find themselves on a vicious turner in India later in the year - and if India are sensible, they really should - they will have not an ounce of justification for complaining.

Any touring team would have struggled here. We saw Australia, with a stronger batting line-up than Sri Lanka's, brushed aside in similar fashion at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston last year. Sri Lanka prepared for this tour with a training camp in Kandy. Which is a bit like opening the window a crack to prepare for a polar expedition. Their batting line-up had been held up by two pillars for some time and those pillars have gone.

James Anderson's performance should be celebrated without caveat © Getty Images

And, but for a couple of moments of fortune, this game could have taken a different turn. Had Alex Hales' second scoring shot flown a couple of feet to the left or right, he may well have been dismissed for four; instead the ball flew between third slip and gully to the boundary and Hales established the foundations for what turned out to be an imposing first-innings total. Later Jonny Bairstow was dropped on 70 when Nuwan Pradeep failed to take a relatively straightforward caught-and-bowled chance. Better opponents will punish such errors and better opponents will not allow England to rebuild from 83 for 5 on the first day.

So, yes, England had a little fortune. And, yes, Sri Lanka offered pretty feeble opposition. England are only one-up in a three-match series in which conditions are stacked in their favour. There was little here to suggest that victory is assured in India or Australia.

But just because something isn't everything, it doesn't mean it is nothing. There were still some encouraging signs here that England are making progress.

It wasn't just that they won - and it needs to be remembered they lost against this opposition on the same ground only two years ago - but they won without meaningful contributions from either Alastair Cook or Joe Root; two men on whom they have relied upon rather too much of late.

Instead, this was a game where two far less established players took strides towards cementing their places.

Most of all, there was the sight of Bairstow making a century in his first Test in England as a wicketkeeper. Bairstow has, over the last couple of years, developed into a giant in county cricket. A batsman with the sort of stature that Graham Gooch, Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash once had. If he can translate such dominance to international cricket, England will be a hugely improved side.

He appears to be well on the way to doing so. This innings was so much more fluent than anyone else could manage on a challenging pitch that it was impossible not to be impressed.

But we knew he could bat. It was his keeping that impressed. While it was not faultless - there was still one drop, going to his right - it was far better than it had been in South Africa and suggested England were closer than they have been to filling the position since Matt Prior's decline in late 2013.

Headingley: no place for a team that is not used to English conditions © Getty Images

Alex Hales also took a step towards filling one of the holes in the top order. While he will need to contribute consistently before he can be said to have secured the opening spot, such was his discipline here that he gave every indication that he had the temperament for the role.

And this game provided an opportunity to witness and celebrate the skills of one of England's great bowlers. There is, Cook noted afterwards, a danger that Anderson's success in such conditions "could be taken for granted" and it would wrong to dismiss his mastery without the respect it deserves.

Ten wickets for 45 runs. That is ridiculous. There have been many Tests in various conditions contested by many mismatched sides. But only eight times in history has a bowler taken a 10-wicket haul in a Test at a lower cost per wicket. Sri Lanka's inexperience could be overplayed, too. Five of their top seven have toured England before. Anderson's skills - his mastery of swing, his control (he conceded 1.78 runs per over in this Test), his ability to find movement off the seam - should not become diluted by familiarity. Bowlers like this come along rarely and England will miss him dearly when he is gone.

If you doubt Anderson's importance to England, ask yourself this question: had he been unavailable for this match, who would have replaced him? Fine cricketers though the likes of Jake Ball and Chris Woakes are, they do not have Anderson's extravagant armoury of weapons. It seems highly likely that this Test would still be in progress. Anderson's performance deserves celebrating without caveat or compromise.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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