Banishing the subcontinental homesick blues
Is Tim Bresnan really such a lucky charm for England? That's now 11 Test wins out of 11. After four consecutive Test defeats, which threatened their No. 1 status, Bresnan comes back into the team and they level the series with a convincing all-round display. He had a side role to play - two wickets, albeit important ones, and not many runs - but maybe his presence is enough. "He's pretty confident he can do a job when asked," Andrew Strauss said with a smile.
In reality, of course, England just played better than at any stage this year. Sounds simple, doesn't it, but this was one of their hardest-earned Test victories in recent times. It finished with a flourish thanks to Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, but it was old-fashion sweat and toil which got them there. James Anderson, in particular, may need to be wheeled on to the plane for the journey home.
Make no mistake, England were chastened by what had happened since January. Suddenly the images of Strauss lifting the Championship mace at The Oval in August were a distant memory. Strauss has always insisted the ranking is not what drives England - and continued to do so after this win - but reputations do matter. One victory does not mean all is suddenly right, but it shows that all was not as wrong as it may have appeared. The task, however, of transferring England's dominance at home and in pace-friendly conditions (such as Australia) on to the subcontinent was perhaps a bigger challenge than anyone expected.
It was also important for the captain. A lot had been written leading into the Test about Strauss' position (the arguments were valid) and defeat here would have led to a difficult build-up to the home season, although he still needs more runs. "I never had any doubts," Strauss said when asked about his position. "I'm very determined and committed to see us improve as a side."
Although this series against Sri Lanka was a self-encapsulated contest, it is worth assessing where England stand by looking back over the five Tests they have played this winter. Outside of the first Test against Pakistan, in Dubai, where they were hammered by 10 wickets they have not been steamrollered. That was down to the bowlers who, in their various combinations, were outstanding throughout. They did not have the two months of complete downtime of some of the batsmen, with training camps in South Africa and India. Andy Flower will not make that mistake again.
Still, the batsmen had plenty of time to prepare for the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle yet sank for 192 in the first innings. That challenged for worst innings of the year because it suggested scrambled minds still unsure how to approach the game. Block or bash appeared the only options.
In Colombo that changed, building on the seeds sown by Jonathan Trott's second-innings hundred in Galle. Still the bowlers did their job - they struck late on the first day and, even more crucially, late on the fourth day to regain the initiative - but this time so did the batsmen. A century opening stand was followed by a Kevin Pietersen special. In a perfect world the lower order would have swelled the lead further, but it was still riches for England.
And it was the method that had served them well throughout the previous two years. Suffocate then pounce with the ball, build a solid base with the bat then let an attacking middle order express themselves. For a while it appeared they could not translate that format in these conditions, but the last five days have shown that, with a little tinkering, it can bring success.
Yet questions will rightfully remain until they can do this consistently. Only the very best have managed it, but that is what England aspire to be. So that is why thoughts are already turning to the series against India later this year even though England may not be No. 1 by then if they can't hold off South Africa during their home season. The presumption is that India's spin threat will be greater than Sri Lanka's - despite Rangana Herath enhancing his reputation significantly - and England's batsmen will have to be swift and confident in footwork and shot selection. Cook, Trott and Pietersen have shown what is possible.
However, it seems only fair that this comes back to England's bowlers. The ability to take 20 wickets in all conditions is priceless. In Anderson and Graeme Swann they have two of finest operators in their respective arts in the world. Anderson up against Dale Steyn in July and August should be a contest to savour. Swann is now bowling better than at any time over the last 12 months. He rarely bowled poorly - and the success of England's quicks meant there wasn't always much to do - but the last Test and a half has been the Swann of 2010. Right-handers were troubled during this Test almost as much as the left-handers.
The balance of the side remains a ticklish point. Samit Patel was certainly not embarrassed in Colombo and could have a role in the future. However, India does not always produce the raging turners it used to and England's strength in fast bowling could be the most important factor. That, though, is getting ahead of things.
England have six Tests to play at home between May and August - these last few months has shown how much can happen in that space of time. They will enter the home season as the No. 1 Test side, if only by a narrow margin ahead of South Africa, and it is abundantly clear how hard it will be to stay there. The subcontinent remains the final frontier, but progress is being made.
Edited by Alan Gardner
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo