England took the six wickets they needed to wrap up victory on Day 4 in Colombo and complete a 3-0 series whitewash over Sri Lanka. But not before they’d been given a scare by the determined hosts. Patrick Noone looks at how England persevered to complete a famous win.
It was not as straightforward as it might have been, but England got over the line. Two dogged partnerships, first between Kusal Mendis and Roshen Silva for the sixth wicket and then between Suranga Lakmal and Malinda Pushpakumara for the tenth, frustrated England and kept alive the tantalising possibility of a Sri Lankan victory.
On both occasions, it was Jack Leach who found a way to break the stand. The Somerset man has of course been a revelation throughout the series with his bowling; his 18 wickets are the most in a series by an England left-arm spinner in a three match series since Hedley Verity’s 23 against India in 1933-34. He’s even drawn praise for his batting, opening the innings as a nightwatchman in the second innings in Pallekele and playing the occasional lusty blow in his more natural position down the order.
But it was through his fielding that he made arguably his most important contribution of this match. Mendis and Silva had put on 102 and were looking in complete control. Mendis, in particular, was continuing his remarkable record in the fourth innings of Tests and only played a false shot to six of the 80 balls he faced while the two were batting together.
England needed some inspiration because, with 143 runs needed at the time, the partnership was already sowing seeds of doubt in the England players’ minds that Sri Lanka could pull off something remarkable. Time and time again in this series though, England have found a way to claw themselves back on top. Whether that’s through innovative batting from Joe Root or Jos Buttler, a back-breaking spell of quick bowling from Ben Stokes or an exceptional piece of fielding from Keaton Jennings at short leg.
Today, it was Leach’s turn to produce that moment, that flick of the switch that suddenly turned the tide back in England’s favour. Pouncing on the ball from fine leg, Leach hurled the ball at the stumps at the bowler’s end as Mendis attempted a risky two. The direct hit caught him yards out of his ground and England had the precious breakthrough. By way of indicating how important that wicket was: Sri Lanka’s WinViz had crept up to 24% off the back of the partnership. It immediately plummeted to 9% and would not go above 17% for the rest of the innings.
It was just what England needed after a somewhat subdued first session that saw only one wicket, that of the nightwatchman Lakshan Sandakan. Though the visitors were largely wayward, Leach was exempt from this assessment, consistent as ever and perhaps a touch unlucky to go to lunch with Sandakan his only victim.
Leach’s opening spell cost him just 20 runs, none of which were from boundaries, and he drew nine false shots from those ten overs. If we’re being hyper-critical, he was a fraction fuller than normal, with 32% on a good line and length, compared to the 40% he recorded across the series as a whole. But these are fine margins, and one of the qualities Leach has shown in his Test career to date is the ability to persevere with the same method until he gets results.
Across his four spells today (five including the four balls he bowled in his final over), Leach was more and more accurate, chipping away with the same method that got him to where he is. Unperturbed by the lack of wickets, Leach knew that if he kept bowling in the right areas, rewards would come.
And sure enough, they did. First through the wicket of Niroshan Dickwella, one of only two left-handers Leach dismissed in the series and then with the victory-clinching dismissal of Lakmal that broke a 58-run stand between the skipper and Pushpakumara. It was a classic wicket-ball for a left-arm spinner against a right hander: pitching around leg-stump, straightening a fraction and hitting the pad, going on to clip the top of leg-stump. Leach’s first major contribution of the day was something extraordinary, his second was as routine as it gets for a bowler of his quality.
A 3-0 series win for England is a fine achievement, especially given where they were at the start of 2018. During the Ashes series 12 months ago, it repeatedly looked as though England simply could not find a way to get wickets. The difference on this tour has been stark as the key moments have been won almost exclusively by the visitors. It was Leach who got them over the line today but in truth, it could have been any number of the other members of the XI.
This series win was a true team effort with batsmen contributing with significant scores – of England’s recognised batsmen, only Moeen Ali failed to reach 50 – and bowlers continually chipping in with wickets – Moeen and Leach and Adil Rashid all picked up at least 12 scalps across the three matches.
Only the veteran seam pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad can be said to have had a minimal impact in this series. Though, that can be spun as a positive: this was never going to be a series in which they were likely to have a big say and England now know they can win without relying on them. Their time will come again when conditions are more in their favour, but until then, the new look England have done plenty to suggest that the future is bright for this team.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.