Tour and tournament reports

Sri Lanka vs England in 2020-21

A review of Sri Lanka vs England, 2020-21

Rory Dollard
Joe Root celebrates reaching 150  •  SLC

Joe Root celebrates reaching 150  •  SLC

Test matches (2): Sri Lanka 0 (0pts), England 2 (120pts)
At the end of December, a couple of weeks before England's first assignment of a busy 2021, their fresh-faced captain Joe Root turned 30. With Covid restrictions in force in the UK, he celebrated in the customary style: at home, with his wife, Carrie, and his children, Alfie and Isabella - plus "a nice bottle of wine". While some were trying to come to terms with the news that the bright young debutant of Nagpur in 2012 was easing into cricketing middle age, Root was facing his own moment of introspection.
For the first time since his maiden Test hundred, in 2013, he had gone a calendar year without adding another. With Marnus Labuschagne and Babar Azam lurking, there were rumblings that his membership of the Fab Four - alongside Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson - might not be renewed.
Instead, Root established himself in Sri Lanka as the series' undisputed centre of gravity, and England headed to India with a 2-0 win in the bag. His drought had ended in a deluge: sweeping relentlessly during masterful innings of 228 and 186, he finished with 426 runs in four innings - exactly twice as many as the next-highest, Angelo Mathews. Root also threw in seven catches, two cheap wickets and smart captaincy: this was a contest that carried his imprint at every turn, and guaranteed a chair at the top table.
The tour had actually begun ten months earlier, in March 2020, but England abandoned it once a fraught day of calls in Colombo confirmed the growing reach of coronavirus. Now, in an era of quarantine, restricted movement and biosecure bubbles, the ECB decided that the all-format players should not take part in every leg of the winter programme, for the sake of their long-term wellbeing.
Absent were Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, yet those two - as well as Jos Buttler, Sam Curran and Jonny Bairstow - had been promised breaks from the England schedule, rather than during either of the IPLs which sandwiched the trip to Sri Lanka and India. This was met with a shrug of acceptance by the England camp, and a hint of distaste from purists.
Rory Burns was also missing, because of paternity leave. There were a couple of new faces among a tour party of 44 on the charter flight to Hambantota, where England spent the first ten days in biosecure isolation, and both owed their role to the pandemic. Phil Davies, a former policeman with counter-terrorism experience, was the team's Covid compliance officer; Dr James Bickley, a clinical psychologist, was in charge of the squad's mental health.
Both must have been busy from the start, when Moeen Ali, having tested negative before departure, tested positive on arrival. He was hoping to make his Test comeback in a country where he had claimed 18 wickets in three matches in 2018-19, but endured isolation for 13 days, with no chance of being fit in time for either game. Chris Woakes, who shared a car with Ali from Birmingham to Heathrow, was confined to his room for a week. Though he tested negative, his chance of action was compromised too.
Medical teams were assigned to both squads, and there were seven rounds of screening in less than three weeks. No one else tested positive on either side, though there was a minor scare when two employees at England's hotel did. Galle International Stadium, which hosted both games, remained shut to spectators, and the media centres closed for business (except for the host broadcasters). At least the cricket could take its rightful place: in a return to some kind of normality, the results that mattered were determined on the pitch, not in the laboratory.
Neither team had ideal preparation. Sri Lanka arrived home straight from a two-match drubbing in South Africa, with plummeting confidence and a rising injury toll. Moving swiftly between the high veld and Galle, they were being asked to paint on canvas and brick with the same brushes. England, meanwhile, had not played Test cricket in nearly five months, and were reduced - by mandatory restrictions and poor weather - to a single day of intra-squad match practice. The entire trip allowed them just six days' full training, in contrast to their original pre-Covid itinerary, which had room for seven days of competitive cricket against strong opposition.
If ever there was an excuse for England to live down to their tag as slow starters, this was it. Instead, they bowled Sri Lanka out before tea on the first day, and never relinquished the advantage. For fans, the spectacle unfolded almost exclusively on screen, though one man - Rob Lewis - represented the Barmy Army in person. He stood vigil on the walls of the nearby fort, belted out "Jerusalem", and lapped up salutations from the players.
There were several threads common to the two games - perhaps unsurprisingly, given they took place at the same ground, a handful of days apart. This was a tour in the most minimal sense. On each occasion, Sri Lanka produced a woeful batting display, 135 in the First Test followed by 126 in the Second. In between, they batted with enough resolve and application to suggest things ought to have been closer.
They were hampered by the last-minute withdrawal of their captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, with a fractured thumb. Even so, in a squad that boasted several former captains - Dinesh Chandimal, Suranga Lakmal, Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne - a lack of on-field leadership was surprising. In the passages of play which shaped the games, there was too much hitting out, too little digging in. In a further reminder of the peculiar rhythms that can govern cricket in this part of the world, the match that started with an innings lasting 46 overs went to the fifth day, while the one in which Sri Lanka ground through almost 140 overs ended on the fourth.
For England, the tone was established by a statesman seamer - first Stuart Broad, then James Anderson. On the previous tour, they had managed one wicket between them, with Anderson declaring himself "a bit of a spare part". This time, Broad set the standard with three wickets and a magnificent economy-rate, before Anderson - replacing him for the Second Test - raised the bar with a six-for. The idea of permanently rotating the pair to make room for younger, quicker alternatives had long been mooted; but they stubbornly refused to be anything short of brilliant.
Things were different in the spin department, where the Taunton-trained double act of Jack Leach and Dom Bess were outbowled by Lasith Embuldeniya. The England duo shared 22 wickets, but laboured for long periods. Embuldeniya, meanwhile, boasted less experience than off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, and less buzz than leggie Wanindu Hasaranga de Silva. But his left-arm spin led the Sri Lankan charge, and he gave Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley a crash course on the perils of subcontinental batting.
Not that Embuldeniya had an answer to Root. Where others pushed with hard hands or sat paralysed on the back foot, he neutered Sri Lanka's only real threat with the ball. His sweeping was so good and so varied - traditional or reverse, in front or behind square, dabbed or slogged - that even the home batters were advised by Mathews to watch the boy from Sheffield for tips.
Among visitors to Sri Lanka, only Brian Lara (688) and Mike Hussey (463) have scored more runs in a series, and both played in three matches. They were not the only names Root had in his sights. He overtook Geoffrey Boycott's Test haul of 8,114, before speeding past Kevin Pietersen (8,181) and David Gower (8,231). Victory in the Second Test, meanwhile, meant Root was just one behind Michael Vaughan's England record of 26.
As well as 120 World Test Championship points, which gave England an outside chance of reaching the final, they took ownership of the newly sponsored Moose Cup - in one sense, at least, a bigger prize than the Ashes urn. Root had enough boyish humour to pose with the trophy's antlers poking out from behind his head, but he had never been a more mature cricketing talent.