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Match Analysis

With Joe Root at the helm, have England fans ever had it so good?

Root's side look increasingly accomplished, bringing much-needed cheer for supporters locked down at home

George Dobell
George Dobell
Joe Root's England have won four successive away Tests for the first time since the 1950s  •  SLC

Joe Root's England have won four successive away Tests for the first time since the 1950s  •  SLC

England supporters have never had it so good.
Yes, the lockdown is rubbish. And yes, as the pandemic continues to ravage the UK, you can almost imagine plague-ridden Londoners of the 1660s looking on and sighing: 'those millennials are having it tough'. There's no disputing that life in general is pretty grim right now.
But on the cricket pitch, at least, this England team is achieving things which their predecessors could scarcely imagine.
Victory in Galle means England have won four successive away Tests for the first time in more than 60 years. To put that in perspective, when the first of those previous four victories was achieved (against New Zealand, in March 1955), Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. By the time of the last (in January 1957), the country was in the middle of the Suez Crisis.
If this sounds like a modest achievement by comparison with some other sides, it should never be forgotten how awful England have been for really quite sustained periods in their cricketing history. Even recently, from October 2016 to November 2018, England went 13 Tests in a row without an away Test victory.
Across the 1980s and 90s, they won 16 of the 96 away Tests they played. At least three of those came in dead rubbers, with four more against a post-Hadlee New Zealand side in transition and one against a Sri Lanka team still finding its feet. Between December 1986 and February 1990, they didn't win away at all.
Ahead of one Ashes tour, England said their aim was simply to "compete." Which is one up from saying the aim was to turn up on time in the right clothes. And even that proved too much to ask at times. You'd need Wes Craven to direct a documentary that really conveys how awful it was following England in the 90s.
So yes, Sri Lanka (who have now lost five times in a row to England at home) were remarkably poor in their first innings in Galle. And yes, South Africa are not the side they once were. But these are significant, historic victories from an England perspective. It would be churlish to explain them away entirely.
At the centre of all this is Joe Root. With a double-century - his record-equalling second as captain - he went a long way towards defining the course of this game. In the course of doing so, he passed 8,000 Test runs in fewer innings than any England player except Kevin Pietersen and with a higher average than any of those above him on the overall list.
Almost as impressively, he marshalled an attack which included two obviously rusty spinners - Dom Bess and Jack Leach - sufficiently well that both claimed five-wicket hauls - the first time a pair of England spinners have done this in the same Test since 1982 - and grew in confidence as the Test wore on.
He was also rewarded by keeping faith with Jos Buttler, who put in perhaps the most accomplished performance of his Test career with the gloves. This was England's first away victory when batting second since 2016 and Root's first as captain without his key allrounder, Ben Stokes. For one reason or another, he was without Moeen Ali, Jofra Archer, James Anderson, Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Chris Woakes, too. Whichever way you look at it, that's a good effort.
Root has now led England to victory in 24 Tests. Only Michael Vaughan, who led the side to 26 wins, has more victories as captain for England, while only Mike Brearley has a higher win percentage out of regular captains than his 53.33%.
Of course, there are far fewer draws in Root's era, meaning his loss percentage is higher too. But Brearley never captained against West Indies, the outstanding side of the age, and his Ashes results were skewed by Australia's World Series absentees. And crucially, his batting average as captain (22.88) was less than half of Root's (48.80).
Regrettably, England's Test captains are still judged disproportionately on their success in Ashes series, particularly away from home. As a result, Root's legacy will be determined by events over the next 12 months, and it would take something approaching a miracle for England to win in both India and Australia.
But with his boyish face and soft voice, Root can easily be underestimated. He doesn't have the obvious authority - or World Cup-winning CV boost - of Eoin Morgan. He doesn't have the gravitas bestowed on Brearley by his academic background, or the free-to-air platform of Vaughan. And, most of all, he doesn't have the complete lack of expectation that accompanied previous England captains on tour.
But he's a decent man, an indecently talented batsman and hugely respected by a team that see him as their natural leader and unifier. He has not only improved his team's results, but improved their standing in the eyes of the public. In Galle, he actually raised his bat to the one England spectator on the fort when he reached his 200 and then took the time to phone him afterwards.
He's embraced the requirement to pose for every selfie, accept every interview request and ensure a team which was in a state of something approaching civil war at the start of 2014 has developed into something entertaining, likeable and generally pretty successful. And he's accepted the sacrifice in his own returns - he averages 44.33 as captain and 52.80 when not - without complaint.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Root could doubtless have done with more preparation time coming into this game, but it is also relevant that he was fresh. Having missed out on selection for England's T20I squad in South Africa, he came into this Test without playing competitively since September.
His work ethic is admirable: at the end of the summer, he played for Yorkshire in the Blast the day after his release from the England bubble. His love for the game is charming: "I love playing cricket" is his typical answer when asked about his T20 future. But as someone already juggling the demands of fatherhood, captaincy and the pressures of being his side's best batsman, he is a man of whom a huge amount is required.
If England want to continue to get the best out of Root, he does need to be treated with the same care as Archer and Stokes seem to be. It may well make sense to officially lay his T20I career to rest and tell him he will not be required for ODI cricket again until at least the other side of the Ashes.
"With the time off, the thing that's really benefited me is having a period of time to work on my game," he said after the Galle Test. "To have time to think about things and take stock and look where I can improve. That's where I think I've benefited the most.
"There will be occasions where I might have to miss out here and there. I'm desperate to play as much as I can. I love playing cricket, love playing for England and feel very privileged to get the opportunity. I suppose getting the balance right is very important. But the way I thought about things in that period of time off, I will look to replicate.
"I don't think you can ever be a finished article as a captain. I certainly don't feel it's the case with me. I will always look to improve and get better; I feel I am getting a better handle on things."
Captains of a previous vintage will look at the job now and wish they had central contracts in their day. And it's true, they are a major asset. But Root has not been dealt a handful of aces by a set-up that renders it difficult to produce red-ball players and demands its best international players adhere to a schedule a Victorian factory owner might feel excessive.
Don't forget that England are likely to play 17 Tests this year, alongside a T20 World Cup and what amounts to a goodwill tour of Pakistan. Like several other sides, they have spent a large part of the last eight months in bio-bubbles that vastly inhibit the freedoms we used to take for granted. In doing so, they've ensured the English game - including the counties, women's cricket and the disability sides - has been able to keep its head above water despite the storm that threatened to wash it away. There has barely been a squeak of complaint from any of them.
Whatever happens over the next year, Root's England side have provided some much-needed cheer for a land going through its bleakest period since World War 2. For that, he deserves rather more respect, rather more appreciation and, crucially, rather more nurturing than he sometimes receives.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo