Fifteen minutes before play began yesterday morning at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, England's reserve players and backroom staff lined up on the edge of the square and with solemn concentration acknowledged the small gathering taking place on the grass beneath the large and well-appointed scoreboard. A group of England supporters, most of them from the Barmy Army, came together to remember and salute one of their own, Peter Marples, who had contracted pneumonia in Kandy ten days ago and died overnight. This solemnity stuck with England through the morning session. Just one wicket was taken and a generally lacklustre display allowed Sri Lanka back into the match. It was a reminder of many things, not the least of which was that nothing in life is to be taken for granted - except its passing.
England went on to the win the match because they are the better team, but it was hard yakka and incorporated some of the least good cricket they have played on the tour. Joe Root knew it but excused it. There is a time for critical analysis and a time for a pat on the back. This was the latter. If you come to Sri Lanka and win 3-0, you deserve some slack on the days the mojo goes missing. Even the most cynical would have allowed it here.
The game-breaking moment had come from an unlikely figure and in an unlikely way. There is nothing obviously "modern athlete" about Jack Leach but he swooped on the ball out at deep square-leg and from some 40 metres threw with his right arm (he is a left-arm bowler) to hit the stumps at the non-striker's end and run out an otherwise untroubled Kusal Mendis. Another hour of Mendis spelt danger for England, so it was just as well that Jumpin' Jack Leach was at his most flash when it was most needed. From that point on, England chipped away with expectation, and duly the quality of their chipping was rewarded.
The Sri Lankans fought yesterday in the manner one had expected them to fight all series. The good news is that the talent is there. The bad is that it is rudderless. In a single swoop the selectors, en masse, were removed on Sunday night. The first thing the new group must hope for is the recovery to full fitness of Dinesh Chandimal. Captaincy is not a job for Suranga Lakmal.
In complete contrast, it has been Root's tour and triumph. For all the efforts of his players - and at various times most of them shone in one way or another - Root had given decisive leadership which has manifested itself in a raft of admirable ways. He influenced selection to the tune of both surprises and master strokes; set the tone of the batting adventure; played a marvellous innings of his own that proved to be the crux of the matter in the second Test; trusted his spinners; won three consecutive tosses (to make it eight in total!); finessed the Jonny Bairstow "situation" and found time to engage with the travelling supporters in a manner hitherto not seen. He wrote a personal letter to each of those who had been bumped off the hotel list in Kandy by the Sri Lankan board - and then moved to Dambulla, two hours away incidentally - and set up a photograph for them with the England team. He promised bright cricket and resolved to reward their journey with a performance to remember, another reason to celebrate his hundred that followed the letter, and England's fine victory.
"Root influenced selection to the tune of both surprises and master strokes, set the tone of the batting adventure, played a marvellous innings in the second Test, trusted his spinners, finessed the Jonny Bairstow situation, and found time to engage with the travelling supporters in a manner hitherto not seen"
The captain came to Colombo in search of ruthlessness. The record books will tell him he got it, though right now he might feel that his bowlers should have slammed the door shut in the faces of the Sri Lankan batsmen long before they did. Truth was, the spinners and Ben Stokes looked tired, while Stuart Broad wasn't called upon. Severe humidity and the pursuit of Test match victories take it out of any cricketer. Often the hardest Test to win is the one after you have won a series. Thus, occasionally in the 1990s and into the beginning of this millennium, England would win a match against Australia when the rubber was dead. Back-to-back Tests make this even more difficult.
There is a nice, smiley picture floating around social media of Bairstow and Ben Foakes together. If it is the case that Foakes is now writ large on the England team sheet and Bairstow is to nail down the No. 3 spot - well, it's a miracle. After his sublime hundred on Friday, the feisty Bradford lad gave a series of interviews that revealed his pain at being left out of the side in Pallekele. At their heart was justification and defence of self. He feels each day to be a battle of wits, every bit as much as of bat and ball, and on those that he loses that battle, insecurity falls upon him as a dark cloud. Fellow players find this tiresome, which is a pity, because they know his heart is big and his ability bigger still. Up until the unload on Friday evening, he had carried himself with dignity, offering pitch-perfect reflections to the media and visibly supporting his colleagues in the pre-match warm-ups each morning. The vital signs of any team lurch about a bit. It's not a love-in but it does need cohesion once the day's work has begun.
The player-of-the-match award gave him immense pleasure. This time his face showed it and the interviews were as they should be - full of joy and the sense of something special achieved. He spoke enthusiastically of Root's leadership, and specifically, referred to the ethos of dynamism, flexibility and innovation that Root is promoting.
Starry-eyed at the wonder of it all was Foakes, anointed as the player of the series for his classy batting and tidy wicketkeeping. The boy is box office, and when the cameras roll in England next spring, the tills will ring. Not chosen in the original touring party, Foakes was flown to Sri Lanka as cover for Jos Buttler in the wake of Bairstow's injury. Funny old world. Once in situ, he was not to be denied. It is a great gift to simplify cricket, especially if you are behind the stumps all day, and his method with bat and glove appears as if it will stand the rigour of time.
While reflecting on the cricket played by England these past weeks, it is the moments of inspiration - of magic, if you like - that keep popping up. The Keaton Jennings collection of catches at short leg; the run-outs by Ben Stokes and Jumpin' Jack; a legspinner who truly spins the ball, wheeling away in the name of England; the sweepfest in Pallekele; Jos Buttler's extraordinary all-round talent for the game, which included a kaleidoscope of innings fit for each of the situations put before him; Foakes' uber-cool temperament; Sam Curran's complete lack of fear; the Bradford lad's bounceback; Stokes' physical strength and deeply ingrained self-belief; and so on, and on. All that and no mention of the two men who have taken the most wickets for England, ever!
Above all, there is Root's insistence that anything is possible if you step outside the box and have a look for it. "We want to leave this team in a better place than when we first came into it," he said last summer. Whereupon his team thumped India at home and Sri Lanka away. This must be a splendid ride to be on.