Victory in first Test a personal and team triumph for Root’s depleted England

Sport

After the presentation and the press conferences were out of the way, and the dust on the well-worn pitch had settled, Joe Root stepped out on to the outfield in Galle to speak to the solitary England fan who, from the ramparts of the neighbouring Dutch fort, had witnessed in person the team’s seven-wicket victory.

Rob Lewis had spent 10 months in Sri Lanka waiting for the team to return after the original series was postponed in March and Root, whose match-defining 228 was forged with a bat that has a Barmy Army logo on the back of it, wanted to thank him personally for his support across the five days.

The pair chatting at a distance over the phone, captured on video by England’s media manager, Danny Reuben, was a thoughtful act from a jaded captain who had spent the bulk of the match out on the park, either sweeping Sri Lanka’s spinners to distraction during his fourth Test double-century or directing traffic out in the field.

This was England’s fifth successive away victory in Sri Lanka and Root was rightly handed the oversized cheque as player of the match. Wins on the road in Test cricket should never be sniffed at – not least those in the heat and humidity of the tropics – and this one, though imperfect, still had plenty going for it.

After all, while it was Root’s 24th victory as captain it was also his first away from home without the talismanic Ben Stokes in the side. Jofra Archer has been similarly rested, Rory Burns is on paternity leave, Chris Woakes missed out because of an isolation period and Ollie Pope is not yet ready after shoulder surgery: five players who can lay claim to being first-teamers (even if that concept is being challenged by the fixture schedule).

It was encouraging therefore that Jonny Bairstow, playing his first Test for a year, and Dan Lawrence, on debut, were the batsmen who doused the flames of panic the previous evening before knocking off the remaining 36 runs of the target on the final morning. Root and head coach Chris Silverwood are trying to build a deep and competitive batting lineup and will welcome the headaches this pair have presented.

While Lawrence looked at ease during both this 21 not out and his 73 on day two, and Jos Buttler started a subcontinental winter behind the stumps without any major hiccups, Root’s own return to form is perhaps the greatest takeaway from England placing one hand on the delightfully named Moose Cup.

The 30-year-old captain often eschews rest, such as at the end of last summer when he turned out for Yorkshire, but after experiencing his first calendar year without a Test century he admitted the three-month break since last September – briefly interrupted by a tour of South Africa in which he didn’t feature – was helpful.

“I think the thing that’s really benefited me is having a period of time to work on my game,” Root said after the match. “Whether that’s technical or mental, [it’s been good] to have time to think about things and take stock and look where I can improve.

“For a long time now I’ve been quite used to playing huge amounts of cricket and still managed to have success. The current climate with bubbles and how things are alongside Covid have made things tougher, so that’s the thing that’s helped me coming into this game. The challenge is to make it count and build on a nice start personally.”

Root is fully aware there are tougher challenges to come. Sri Lanka had a stinker on the first day, perhaps a combination of coming straight from South Africa and thinking they needed to match England’s aggressive tactics from the 3-0 defeat they received in 2018. But the way they battled back, even inducing some jitters among the tourists, suggests the second and final Test, starting on Friday, may not be so straightforward.

Four more Tests in India follow for England, with an expected seven-day isolation period in hotel rooms wiping out the prospect of a tour match. It makes what Steve Waugh’s great Australia team used to call “the final frontier” even more arduous, both for those who don’t get a game in Sri Lanka and a spin attack that clearly needs plenty of overs.

Much has been written and said about Dom Bess and Jack Leach over the course of the first Test, not always positive but in the main accepting they are, for different reasons, being asked to deliver at the highest level in circumstances far more challenging than their more illustrious predecessors ever faced.

They still shared 14 wickets – no mean feat – and though Root’s ability to cage Sri Lanka’s batsmen with catchers was reduced at times by a lack of control, the pair did improve as the match wore on and they will only be stronger for it. Moeen Ali could in theory return after recovering from Covid, while Mason Crane, Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi are also on tour, but it would be a backward step if either Leach or Bess were benched so soon.

Changes are still likely, though. Stuart Broad, not always at home in Asia, was immaculate with match figures of 26 overs, 14 maidens, three for 34 and can get back to wedding planning if, as has been the plan, Jimmy Anderson tags in for the next match. Woakes, viewed as the first-choice all-rounder before Covid protocols struck, may challenge Sam Curran, even if the left-armer typically delivered some telling interventions.

Mark Wood may also be due a rest, offering a chance for Olly Stone or one of the wrist-spinners, perhaps. Wood went wicketless but England, who should be playing the long game here, will be pleased his speeds stayed around 90mph throughout his 27 overs; a feather in the cap of a bowler who appears – ahem, touch wood – more robust these days.

As Root stressed, this was a performance to build upon rather than call for bunting. But given the lack of preparation, the challenges of the bubble, an inexperienced spin attack and the absence of both key players and all but one of the supporters who usually lift spirits out in the middle, it would also be churlish to dismiss what was a promising start to the year.