Sri Lanka's Headingley Test win was a historic one for several reasons: it gave them their first Test series win in England, and two of the batsmen who played key roles - Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene - have both been legendary figures and might never play another Test in England. However, along with the solid batting recovery in the second innings, a key aspect of their win was the role played by the pace attack. Nuwan Pradeep, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad and Angelo Mathews together had a match haul of 17 for 474, compared to a match haul of 17 for 585 for England's more famed pace attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett. The difference in their figures was 111 runs; the margin of victory for Sri Lanka: 100 runs.
After the match, Alastair Cook, the England captain, said that the inability to get a bigger first-innings lead cost them. "We can't look past the fact that, in this game, we were 300 for 3, with a lead of 60, and we haven't been able to nail Sri Lanka down. We should have got more than 360. We needed 450, 500 on that wicket. That's what's cost us."
That England didn't score so many was because of Sri Lanka's seam attack: Eranga and Mathews took four wickets each in the first innings, including key middle-order ones, to restrict the deficit to 108. In this aspect alone, this Sri Lankan team was different from others that toured England in the past, or even from other Sri Lankan teams that toured outside the subcontinent. In years gone by, teams would have invariably piled up more than 450 in their first innings, and the onus would have been on Sri Lanka's batsmen to bat long enough to salvage a draw.
Seam bowling outside the subcontinent has always been a challenge for Sri Lanka. In ten previous Tests in England, they'd taken 57 wickets at an average of 61.78, and a strike rate of 103 balls per wicket; in just two Tests in this series, they took 29 wickets, at 36.34, and a strike rate which almost equalled the averaged in the previous ten. Prasad, who took 5 for 50 in England's second innings, became only the second Sri Lankan seamer, after Rumesh Ratnayake in 1991, to take a five-for in England. In ten Tests there between 1998 and 2011, there'd been only one four-wicket haul by a seamer - Chanaka Welegedara's 4 for 122; at Headingley alone, there were three Sri Lankan seamers who took four or more, which is also a first for them in a Test. The last time two Sri Lankan seam bowlers took four or more in an away Test was almost a decade ago, in Darwin in 2004, when Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga took five and four.
The seamers' match haul of 17 wickets is the highest for Sri Lanka in a Test outside Asia; the previous-best was 15 in Napier in 1995. The series haul of 29 is the third-best for them outside Asia, which is again a significant achievement given that this was only a two-Test series.
The series victory in England is in itself a momentous achievement, but the fact that their faster bowlers played such a significant role makes it even more important. More such performances will make them more competitive consistently when they tour, which can only be a good thing for them and for international cricket.
Watling's batting prowess
Since the beginning of 2012, New Zealand's most successful batsman has been Ross Taylor, with 1865 runs at 58.28. That isn't a surprise, but the batsman with the second-best average (with a 400-run cut-off) isn't Kane Williamson, or Brendon McCullum; it's BJ Watling, their wicketkeeper, with 1024 runs at an average of 44.52. In 27 innings during this period, he has scored three centuries and seven fifties, and has often shown the ability to bat long periods and make opposition bowlers toil for his wicket.
Most recently that facet was on display during his unbeaten 66 against West Indies in the second Test of the ongoing series in Port of Spain. New Zealand lost the Test, but Watling battled for 387 minutes, and faced 216 balls, striking just four fours. Earlier this year, against India in Wellington, he spent 510 minutes at the crease to make 124, in the process adding 352 with McCullum - who made a triple-hundred - to stave off what seemed like certain defeat. Last year, Watling defied South Africa's fast bowlers for 151 balls, scoring 42 on a spicy pitch in Cape Town. All of those displays, and a couple more, find a place among the slowest innings of 150 or more balls by a New Zealand wicketkeeper. Among the top 12 such innings, Watling's name comes up five times.
More importantly, Watling's recent performances have given more spine to New Zealand's lower order. When he first came into the New Zealand team, Watling played as a specialist batsman, but didn't achieve as much success, averaging only 21.50 from 14 innings despite making an unbeaten 60 on debut. However, in his first innings as wicketkeeper, Watling made an unbeaten 102, against Zimbabwe, and since then he has consistently been among the runs. In 25 innings as wicketkeeper, he averages an impressive 48.14, with three hundreds and seven fifties. Among wicketkeepers who've scored at least 1000 runs, only two - AB de Villiers and Andy Flower - have averaged more, though admittedly there are others who've averaged more than 40 over considerably longer periods.
Apart from the number of runs he has scored, though, there's a solidity to Watling's batting that's impressive. His strike rate is 42.46 in all Tests, which means he bats long periods, and has a technique that allows him to spend a long time at the crease. Among New Zealand's wicketkeepers, he is already the fourth-highest run-getter, and has the best average among those with 1000 or more runs. Add his superb wicketkeeping skills, and it's hardly a surprise that even McCullum has been impressed enough to call him his favourite cricketer.