After England ran out deserved winners in Galle, Patrick Noone looks at how the variety in their new look bowling attack got the better of Sri Lanka in their own conditions.
It was inevitable for more than two days that England would seal victory in Galle, the only question was the size of the win. 211 runs was ultimately the margin, making it Sri Lanka’s third heaviest defeat at that venue. It was England’s first victory there and their first triumph anywhere outside of England for more than two years.
Joe Root will of course be delighted with a first overseas win as captain and the England skipper deserves credit for how he managed his attack in unfamiliar conditions. That said, the contrast between the makeup of this bowling unit compared with the one that Root had under his stewardship during last winter’s Ashes could hardly have been more different.
During that series Down Under, one of the primary criticisms of the England attack was its lack of variety. Jake Ball, a right-arm seamer with an average speed of 130-135kph, featured at Brisbane before being replaced by Craig Overton, a right-arm seamer with an average speed of 130-135kph, for two Tests. After Overton’s injury at Perth, his place was taken by Tom Curran, who is – yes, you guessed it – a right-arm seamer with an average speed of 130-135kph. In the meantime, James Anderson and Stuart Broad played every Test while Chris Woakes featured in the first four before injury ruled him out in Sydney. With a Kookaburra ball on flat, Australian pitches, even those three more established quicks were essentially reduced to merely being right-arm seamers with an average speed of 130-135kph.
Fast forward to this Test and Anderson and off-spinner Moeen Ali are the only two bowlers to have featured in both that ill-fated series and today’s historic win. Alongside them, Root finds at his disposal the left-arm seamer Sam Curran, the leg-spinner Adil Rashid and the slow left-armer Jack Leach. All have played their part in this win. In addition, Ben Stokes has returned to provide a different kind of threat to that offered by those seamers used in the Ashes.
In the fourth innings today, Stokes was tasked with the role of enforcer. In a brutal eight over spell either side of the lunch interval, he only pitched five balls fuller than 5m from the batsman’s stumps. Stokes’ average length of 9.2m was his fourth shortest of any Test innings. However, as is so often the case with spells such as this, it is not just the short ball that does the damage but the threat of the short ball. His only wicket came was that of Dhananjaya de Silva, to whom he bowled one of his fullest deliveries the previous ball. De Silva, expecting the bouncer next ball, was stuck on the back foot and dangled his bat to one that was back of a length and edged to Root in the slips.
Stokes’ fellow seamers, Anderson and Curran, were both wicketless in the second innings having picked up one wicket apiece in the first, but each performed a containing role with the new ball that prevented Sri Lanka from making fast starts. Their control over line, length and the little movement there was on offer made the job easier for England’s spin trio later in the innings. As the below graph shows, the hosts were far less willing to go after England’s two opening bowlers than the other members of the attack.
With the platform laid, the spinners were able to go about their business. Though Adil Rashid was not at his best during his first spell, the other advantage to having such a balanced attack is that Root was able to take him out of the firing line and pursue an alternative tactic, such as the Stokes short ball theory.
Moeen Ali picked up four second innings wickets to go alongside his four in the first and the off-spinner has rarely looked so in control of his own game. Moeen judged the line and length to bowl on a Galle pitch that provided him with more turn (5.5°) than all bar three of his previous Test appearances. His average speed of 82.31kph is the slowest he’s ever bowled in an overseas Test and the second slowest overall behind the first Test of the 2015 Ashes. Tossing it up and letting the ball do it’s stuff was the right strategy but one that requires immense confidence on the part of the bowler. Moeen looks to have regained that after his winter of discontent and England are now reaping the rewards.
And what of the third member of England’s spin triumvirate? It was somewhat poetic that as one unassuming left-arm spinner left the stage for the hosts, another should announce his arrival for the visitors. Jack Leach picked up three top order wickets and was one of many contenders for Player of the Match on just his second appearance. While one of his wickets was handed to him by Kusal Mendis’ over-eagerness to bludgeon him out of the attack, the other two came about through bowling of real quality. The first, that of Kaushal Silva, was from a ball that turned 3.0° as Silva tried to sweep but failed to connect and was struck on the pad. It might have appeared innocuous, but the key to the wicket was the previous ball that pitched in an almost identical position but turned significantly less. Silva played it as though it wouldn’t turn and was undone by the subtle variation that the outgoing Rangana Herath would have been proud of.
There was nothing innocuous about his third wicket though, the crucial dismissal of Sri Lanka’s captain, Dinesh Chandimal. A ball that drifts 2.5° into the right-hander before pitching and turning 8.7° away from him is going to be hard for any batsman to play, even one of Chandimal’s quality. It went through his defences left the skipper’s stumps in as much disarray as his team find themselves in.
An away Test victory is something to be savoured in any circumstances, but this one will taste particularly sweet for England. It’s been a long time coming with harrowing tours to India and Australia fresh in their memories. Now they have something to hold onto, a platform upon which to build and a strategy that they know works in these conditions. They will go to Pallekele full of confidence, full of optimism and, above all, full of bowling options.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.