Just 56 balls were required for the tourist’s first win of 2021, confirmed in the early hours of Monday morning when Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence returned to the create at Galle to pick off the remaining 36 runs for a seven-wicket win. England take a 1-0 lead in the series, with the second and final Test taking place on Friday at the same venue, having landed a number of telling blows on their opponents.
Victory was all but guaranteed when they dismissed Sri Lanka for 135 on day one. England responded with 421 which would go on to see them require a target of 74. Barring an early collapse of 14 for three, it was relatively smooth sailing. All this after losing the toss, no less.
“I think any Test win, you've got to take a lot of confidence from, and a lot of heart from the way that we've gone about this game,” said Root, man of the match for his 226 in the first innings. “It's not been a perfect performance, we're very well aware of that, but with the little lead-in that we've had since this tour, the little cricket our spinners have had.”
Those spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Leach, both returned five-wicket hauls. The former Somerset duo – Bess is now at Yorkshire – shared 14 of the 20 wickets on offer, gaining in consistency throughout the match which bodes well for the next match and four that awaits them in India from next month.
Neither had particularly thorough preparation coming onto a surface where they were expected to do the brunt of the work. Especially so for Leach, who last played a Test in November 2019 against New Zealand. But the left-arm spinner grated into day four and was rewarded with five for 122, able supported by Bess, who had drawn confidence from his easier five for 30 on day one.
“They will have got a huge amount from this, not just confidence in terms of taking wickets but the amount of time that they've had out there. You can’t replicate spending time out there in the field in a match situation, against international players. They will get better and better the more cricket they play.
“It’s not just the actual art of spin bowling in terms of the skill and technical elements to it, but there’s the mental aspects of it. Getting used to the heat, there’s not been that build up and lead in that you would normally have to an away tour in such extreme conditions. So, I think this game will ready them even more for Friday. They'll be better for having a workout this week.”
With regards to Root, there is a sense a lack of cricket has served him well. An England captain’s plate is always full, and the 16 Tests to go in 2021 prove as much. But the break of the pandemic meant the 30-year old played just 14 International matches in 2020. His previous lightest workload as a full-time top-level cricketer (since 2012) was 34 in 2017.
Not only was this a fourth double hundred for Root, but he passed 8,000 runs in the process. His previous trip to three figures came 16 innings ago, and that was also a double, of 226, against New Zealand in November 2019.
“With the time off, I think the thing that’s really benefited me is having a period off time to work on my game,” said Root. “Whether that’s technical or mental, to have time to think about things and take stock and look where I can improve That’s where I think I’ve benefited the most. For a long time now I’ve been quite used to playing huge amounts of cricket and consistently, and still managed to have success. Of course in the current climate with bubbles and how things are alongside covid, it will have made things tougher, but that’s the thing that’s helped me coming into this game. The challenge is to make things count and build on a nice start personally.
“I do think I can do that alongside cricket but of course there will be occasions where I might have to miss out here and there. I’m desperate to play as much as I can. I love playing cricket, love playing for England and feel very privileged to get the opportunity to do so. Careers are very short and we want to make the most of it, so I suppose getting the balance between that is very important. But certainly the way I thought about things in that period I will look to replicate if I find myself in a similar scenario.”
The sights of debutant Lawrence doing well, an accomplished 73 in his first innings at this level, and a first away win under Root’s captaincy without talismanic allrounder Ben Stokes are signs of an improving Test depth. There was also the heartening return of Moeen Ali, out of isolation on day three (16 January) after testing positive for Covid-19 upon arrival into the country on 3 January.
Originally ruled out for both matches in the series, Root confirmed the off-spinning allrounder could state a case for inclusion in the XI for the second Test. Moeen, who has 60 caps, averages 24.50 in Sri Lanka after taking 18 wickets here in 2018. He last play a red-ball match for England back in August 2019 against Australia.
“With Mo I think it’s important we take it day-by-day and look at where he’s at over the next couple of days. It would be wrong to completely rule him out, but it’s just so good to have him back around the dressing room, he’s such a great character such a big part of the two squads, for him to be back around the Test team now is brilliant. We are thrilled for him to be back amongst it and looking forward to him being back at training when we start getting ready for the next game.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur has called on his batters to be more like Root. The aberration of the first innings was turned around with the second as Lahiru Thirimanne notched a century, with fifties for Kusal Perera and Angelo Mathews.
Though it is likely he will be without his full-time captain Dimuth Karunaratne, ruled out of the first match with a broken thumb, Arthur hopes his charges can use the confidence gained in the latter half of the match to improve for Friday.
"We know the wickets here are tough to start on but once you get in you have to capitalise, just like Joe Root did for England which was the difference in the game. I thought Angelo Mathews’ innings yesterday was just superb in these conditions. The way he applied himself, the tempo of his innings, his game-plans, I just thought our young batsmen needed to watch how he went about his business to know how to bat on a turning wicket. Hopefully that’s lessons learned."