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England deserve all the plaudits for their historic win


England_Sri_Lanka_Test_whitewash_cricketFew would have predicted a Test series win for England with a match to spare ahead of the Sri Lankan tour, and fewer still would have even thought of a clean sweep. But Joe Root’s men have defied the odds in style, completing an incredible 3-0 whitewash with a 42-run victory in the final Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo. Over the years, touring English sides have learnt how difficult it is to prevail on Asian soil, making this triumph all the more satisfying.

Yet, there seems to be a suggestion by a handful of observers that since England achieved the feat against a Sri Lankan outfit that is supposed to be on the decline, not much should be read into it. For instance, television commentator and former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted after the second Test that ‘while enjoying the success, England would be better served for its long term improvement by acknowledging that this Sri Lankan side is a pretty weak side’.

Manjrekar further added that ‘this is currently the easiest subcontinental challenge’. While he is entitled to his views, his statement certainly comes across as short-sighted, and undermines one of the finest Test performances by a visiting team in recent times. One only needs to look back at history to gauge the significance of England’s series win – this was only the third instance of a visiting side sweeping a series 3-0 in Sri Lanka, after Australia (in 2003-04) and India (in 2017).

Moreover, only two touring English teams have won a three-Test series 3-0 before – in South Africa in 1895-96 and in New Zealand in 1962-63. The only other time England won three Tests in a series in the subcontinent was in India in 1976-77, in what was a five-Test series. In the current scenario, winning an overseas Test series in such convincing fashion is as rare as it gets. Thus, to write off an overseas win as ‘easy’, especially one in Sri Lanka, is to be highly ignorant.

For all the talk about Sri Lanka being ‘weak’ opposition, they were playing at full strength in home conditions, on tracks prepared with a view to suit their spin attack, which, even after the retirement of Rangana Herath, bore a potent look, what with the underrated Dilruwan Perera at the forefront. Just four months earlier, they had demolished South Africa in a two-Test series – the Proteas averaged a mere 153.25 across four innings – with Perera taking 16 wickets at 13.00.

Sri Lanka also breached the fortress of the United Arab Emirates last year, becoming the first team to beat Pakistan in a series in the desert country since it became their adopted home. While they have not been consistent enough, the Sri Lankans are far from being also-rans. Besides South Africa, Australia too have been trounced on the island of late, losing all three Tests on their 2016 tour. This puts in perspective England’s result, which is nothing short of tremendous.

Prior to the start of the series, England had won only once in their last ten Tests in Asia. On the opening day of the first Test at Galle, when they were wobbling at 103/5, it seemed that their travails on the road would prolong. However, not for the first time, the lower order rallied, taking the total to 342. The cornerstone was a fine 107 from debutant wicketkeeper Ben Foakes. Foakes went on to earn the Man of the Series honour, for his chart-topping tally of 277 runs at 69.25.

Aiding Foakes in the rear-guard effort was Sam Curran (48), who continued from where he left in England’s victorious Pataudi Trophy campaign. The pugnacious 20-year-old all-rounder again gave evidence of the value he brings to the team, especially when vital runs are needed. Another plus from the first Test was the form of Keaton Jennings, who was fighting for his place at the top. His unbeaten 146 in the second innings put paid to any hopes that Sri Lanka might have had.

Given England’s situation on the first day at Galle, their eventual 211-run win spoke volumes of their resolve. This set the tone for the remainder of the series, with England, backed by a generous presence of the Barmy Army, increasingly gaining confidence. In conditions heavily conducive to spin, runs on the board mattered. Once that was out of the way, England’s invigorating troika of spinners repeatedly exposed the frailties in the Sri Lankan batting line-up.

In a dominating display, left-arm spinner Jack Leach (18 wickets at 21.38), off-spinner Moeen Ali (18 at 24.50) and leg-spinner Adil Rashid (12 at 28.16) captured between them 48 of the 60 Sri Lankan wickets to fall, invoking memories of the Graeme Swann-Monty Panesar combo that floored India in their own backyard in 2012-13. The series itself saw as many as 100 wickets fall to spin (Perera leading with 22 scalps), which was, by far, a new record for a three-Test series.

Root led from the front, with his batting highlight being an attacking 124 in the second innings of the second Test at Pallekele. Earlier, in the first innings, Curran (64) again stood up in a sticky situation, while Foakes scored a mature 65* in the second innings, helping Root to put the target beyond Sri Lanka’s reach. England had four centurions in the series – besides Foakes, Jennings and Root, Jonny Bairstow breached the three-figure mark as well – while Sri Lanka had none.

Foakes was also adept behind the wicket, giving strong indications that he could develop into a reliable performer in the years to come. With Bairstow and Jos Buttler also very much in the scheme of things, England can actually afford to play three wicketkeepers in their eleven, giving them an edge in the field. Indeed, a major difference between England and Sri Lanka was the fielding, with Ben Stokes and Jennings in particular conjuring some electric exhibitions at key junctures.

England’s spin onslaught meant that seasoned pacer James Anderson was barely needed. This bodes well for England’s long-term prospects in Asia and the West Indies, regions where spin is expected to play a critical role. England’s next Test assignment is slated to be in the Caribbean, where England will look to go one better than their previous visit – a 1-1 draw in 2014-15. Going by the standards they set in Sri Lanka, a second consecutive clean sweep cannot be ruled out.

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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