Mark Nicholas

Herath's goodbye, Root's hello

It was a less than memorable goodbye for a legend. For England's captain, it's all coming up roses

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
It was a shame that Rangana Herath finished his career flat on his tummy, just millimetres from safety. Ben Stokes' rocket throw beat his dive for the line by this fraction and the result for Herath was a cleaning bill. Four hundred and thirty-three Test match wickets deserved something less excruciating. In a way, though, it was typical, fighting to the last as he did even when the game was up. For 20 years he has been a professional in the truest sense of the word and through that time his efforts have been as unstinting as his modesty. He may well be the last of the old-timers - men who cared little for impression but instead trusted their gift, applied their mind, and brought dignity to the game they love. No cynicism, sledging or showmanship from Herath - and certainly no sports science - just graft and honour. And wickets. No bowler has taken more five-wicket hauls in the last innings of Test matches, a fact worth repeating to oneself and reflecting upon, given the bowlers who have gone before him.
For all that, and rather sadly as far as he was concerned, the detail of this final match was to be forgotten. Indeed it was a feeble performance from the Sri Lankans in general, most of whom seemed unable to engage. On another, altogether less emotive day, someone will ask Herath "Do you remember / Do you recall?" And he will reply "Yes, I remember / I remember it all."
He alluded to a couple of his favourite memories - Mahela Jayawardene's last Test match, in which he took 14 wickets, for example; and the time in 2009 when Kumar Sangakkara called him in England, where was playing as a pro in the leagues, to tell him to jump on a plane quick because they were a spinner down ( "a spinner" - it was Murali they were down!) for the next Test against Pakistan in Galle.
He made it back in time and began part two of a wonderful career. But on Friday evening, as the ceremonies proceeded on the outfield and memorabilia was passed to him and then on to his delightful-looking family, he was a man preferring to forget the past four days: four days during which his proud land relinquished its unbeaten-by-England-in-Galle status and the players appeared culpable as boys playing against men.
Goodness, England were good. So good that it was hard to be sure if it were so, or if Sri Lanka were that bad that England shone simply from the darkness of their opposition's depression. Joe Root was a picture of happiness at the end of it all, a boy easing into his adult responsibilities as if the initial reluctance had been replaced by eager anticipation for the days and years ahead.
Root reiterated the point about his determination to do things differently, and understood that there was flak for the apparently profligate batting on the first morning. We will never know if his argument stands strong that without it, England may have been 50 for 5 instead of 113 for 5 at lunch. What we do know is that England have spent the last six months playing a more joyous form of Test cricket, as if the mindset has been recalibrated to embrace less fear of failure and more freedom of spirit. Various selections have pointed to this - Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Adil Rashid, Ben Foakes - while others have a more pragmatic feel - Keaton Jennings, Rory Burns, Jack Leach. Root has the national selector, Ed Smith, in his camp, and Smith is nothing if not alive with imagination that is then carefully analysed for its possible effect.
Stokes' fourth-day bowling was Flintoff and Botham at their best - splendidly adventurous, physically strong, furiously aggressive, and beyond the scale of anyone else on either side
Each captain needs his interpretation to be absorbed before it wins common approval. The idea that a team plays in the image of its captain is all well and good, but as they like to say down under, you gotta have the cattle. To have imagined a year ago that England would begin in Galle with a right-arm offspinner, a left-arm orthodox and a legspinner who had retired from first-class cricket nine months previously... well, you wouldn't have done - two of the three, yes, though exactly who might have tested the keenest minds. Root selected all three with high excitement for the options they gave him and whacked in the best seam and swing bowler in England's history; a young and fancy-free left-arm swing bowler who bats with great skill and without a care in the world; and an enforcer whose ability to affect seismic shifts in cricket matches seems to have no limit.
We know all about Jimmy Anderson, the great examiner of a batsman's defensive technique. We are fast learning about Sam Curran, who rubs the zest of his cricket into the skin of others. We marvel, almost daily, at the ever-changing canvas that is Ben Stokes. His fourth-day bowling was Flintoff and Botham at their best - splendidly adventurous, physically strong, furiously aggressive, and beyond the scale of anyone else on either side. Galle provided the most placid of pitches, Stokes transcended it. He is gold. The next move is to get him batting at No. 3.
This is a needs-must situation but at the same time, a perfect fit. This column has already spoken loudly enough on the subject. Stokes has the game, England have the vacancy. Moeen Ali is locked in chains by the role, a shadow of the gamebreaker he can be at No. 7 or 8. It is less that Moeen is restricted by the perceived responsibility at No. 3 and more that he breathes the sweetest air down the order. From it comes the clearing of the mind and the looseness in his limbs that make him a nightmare of a proposition when the ball is softening and the opposing attack has lost its early bite.
Root's only problem going forward to Kandy is who to leave out. It is unthinkable that Foakes will return to the bench after one of the most consummate debuts of all time. If ever a man looked to the manor of Test cricket born, that man is Foakes. Graham Gooch knew him well in younger days at Essex. Watching from the rooftop of the Galle pavilion, the great man nodded his unconditional approval.
The answer for Root is to go with the same XI. Hard as that may seem on Jonny Bairstow and Stuart Broad, these rhythms suddenly take hold on tour. It is where relationships and solidarity are tested, far from home, when the best-directed minds win through. Only if the pitch is grassy can another seamer be contemplated, and one imagines the Sri Lankan management would not recommend such a change of tack. More likely, the Sri Lankans will take their chances and ensure a surface that plays to their supposed strength - spin and more spin. After all, in a three-match series, there is no time for treading water. The trouble for them is that England are a way in front already and barely looking as if they have raised a sweat.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK