Successfully chasing a target of 164 for victory with a day to spare to take a series 2-0. Stripped of its colour England’s win in the second Test over Sri Lanka looks a heck of a lot like dominance. And, really, that is what it was. There may have been dips and turns over the last two weeks, but day four of this second Test encapsulated the tourist's composure in crunch situations, albeit in fast-forward.
They lost both tosses on two very different Galle pitches and came through batting in the last innings when conditions were at their toughest. The greater challenge came here, facing a deficit of 37 when dismissed for 344 early on. But a remarkable fightback as 15 wickets fell across 81.1 overs of play saw England triumph with relative ease. That’s now five successive wins away from home, the first time they’ve enjoyed such a run since a sequence of seven between 1911 and 1914.
Dom Sibley was the unlikely hero of the last three-and-a-bit hours. A tuck to the leg side for a single - one of many - took the opening batsman to 56 not out. His relief at getting over the line all the more pronounced given a string of single-figure scores – four, two and nought – coming into this innings had some, including himself, wondering how long rather than how many.
As men fell around him on a deceiving surface offering big bounce and bigger turn, he summoned 144 deliveries worth of fight to be there for the crowning glory. That he made it to the end was as clear an indication you need that he is an adapter, a trait that has served him well in 14 Tests, now with a third half-century - from 139 balls with just two fours – to go with two hundreds. Together, with an engaging hand from Jos Buttler, typically calculated and devastating with 46 off 48, the 75 needed from a sketchy position of 89 for four came steadily.
Sibley was fortunate, of course, as those not called names like “Joe Root” are when succeeding in this part of the world. Three “umpire’s calls” went his way on LBW decisions sent upstairs for review. But those are more Sri Lanka’s frustrations, who will rue another shocker with the bat. A series that began with 135 all out has been bookended by an even worse 126 when the game was in their hands.
However, the brunt of the credit for Monday’s heist belongs to Dom Bess and Jack Leach, taking four for 49 and four for 59 respectively to rip through Sri Lanka’s second effort. Root contributed the final two without conceding a run, to go with his series tally of 426 and average of 106. But the man of the series has had his, and every bit of it deserved.
Just a few weeks ago Bess talked up how effective he and Leach could be. Though he had left for Yorkshire last summer, their domestic ond, he felt, would serve England well. One that did right by Somerset on many occasions, characterised by Bess’s average of 23 and Leach’s average of 18 in the 19 first matches they had bowled together before the first Test. And, well, he wasn’t lying. They finish with 22 wickets combined (Bess 12, Leach 10) from these two Tests alongside each other at a collective average of 27.73.
Only six days ago Somerset had a 12-point deduction reduced to eight. The crime, a Taunton pitch created to benefit their spinners in a title decide against Essex at the end of the 2019 summer marked as substandard. The reason for the downgraded punishment merely a reflection of a new 2021 first-class season of three groups from the traditional two Division competition.
But perhaps now, after Leach and Bess bowled England to victory again, two spinners who have benefitted most from these surfaces, things might change. Maybe not necessarily the regulations - not just yet anyway, that kind of administrative thinking takes a lot longer to alter - but the perception Somerset were doing the game wrong by producing them.
Perhaps the visiting teams that have cried foul play, and their supporters who amplified that noise, can see the bigger picture. Somerset themselves haven’t benefitted outright, still without a Championship, though Middlesex will be the first to remind you of relegation “play-off” that went against them at the end of 2017, when Leach (10) and Bess (two) combined for 12. Now, with Test records of 44 wickets at 30.50 for Leach, and 31 at 33 for Bess, the pay-off is clear to see. Chalk this up as another win for County Cricket servicing the national team.
The pressure was on both to perform. A poor first-innings display meant Root relief on his seamers for all 10 dismissals in the first innings. Sri Lanka’s twirlers showed then put them in the shade, accounting for all of the non-Root wickets to dismiss England for 344, including the final wicket of Leach for off-spinner Dilruwan Perera’s first of the match 11 deliveries into Monday morning.
Bowling in tandem from the fourth over of the third innings, the Leach-Bess combination split the first eight between them to reduce the tourists to 78 and a 115 ahead. Greater control and varying pace extracted enough bite to challenge both edges of the bat. Both were assisted by some excellent tall short-leg work from Zak Crawley: reacting to a glance off the face from Lahiru Thirimanne and a firm edge off the pad from Oshada Fernando.
They also benefitted from the kind of Sri Lankan batting that would have coach Mickey Arthur eating his shorts, if only for a light snack. Kusal Perera swept off the wrong length. Angelo Mathews swept off the wrong line. Dinesh Chandimal got greedy after a brace of fours to sky one for James Anderson to take a brilliant catch over his shoulder running back from mid on. Niroshan Dickwella repeated his first innings error of spooning into extra cover. A line-up that should know better took turns to shoot themselves in the foot, but Leach and Bess provided the ammunition.
That they posted what looked a competitive, potentially match-winning target was down to Lasith Embuldeniya. The left-arm spinner had sent down 42 overs to take seven for 137 before carrying the rest of teammates once more with a cameo of 40 that took the ask beyond 100. Only four others made it into double figures and no one else past 20.
His carefree approach jolted England into nerves for the first time, shelling catches, four in all, two off Embuldeniya. And as the eighth wicket stand chugged towards 50, and the lead beyond 150, on-field enthusiasm morphed into worry.
It would fall to England’s own one-man-band to get rid of Sri Lanka’s. Root brought himself on, getting Emuldeniya caught by Jonny Bairstow at first slip - who dropped a similar combination the previous over – then bowling number 11 Asitha Fernando off the next delivery to confirm a chase of 164.
Of course, that was never going to be the end of Root or Embuldeniya’s work. But there was at least some rest bite for Root, who has rivalled the umpires for time on the ground this series. For the first time in four battings innings, the number four came to the crease after the ninth over, with more than 17 on the scoreboard.
Both openers had made it to three figures for the first time this month, and Bairstow breezed into the final session ensuring there was 102 to get when Root arrived. Embuldeniya, yet again, the reason he was there: Zak Crawley (13) caught at gully and Bairstow (29) leg before.
The fear returned when Root (11) gloved onto his own stumps off Ramesh Mendis and Embuldeniya registered his first 10-wicket match when Dan Lawrence edged onto his pad and into Dickwella’s gloves.
But Sibley remained firm, the perfect anchor for Buttler to play freely while Embuldeniya toiled. The 24-year-old continued to plug away as the light faded alongside Sri Lanka’s hopes. His emergence as a world-class spinner and a bloody-minded cricketer suggests a bright future. Any rebuilding effort for the hosts must be built around him. He clearly thrives off responsibility.
For Root and England, sights are now set on the tour of India which they leave for in the next couple of days. There is room for improvement and decisions to be made over the XI, with form to scrutinise and marquee players returning and some head home. Yet they go into this four-match series, and the 11 more Tests to follow, with the utmost confidence in their ability to dig deep and a knack of winning in unfamiliar surroundings. Two characteristics that have got them this far and could take them even further.