England have swept their way to a clean sweep against Sri Lanka. This is the first time they have won all matches in a series of three or more Tests in Asia. An Asian win is pretty rare, doing so with three victories out of three is literally unheard of. Joe Root and Co have won and won well, but they have not done so in a traditional way. This England team is an odd one, but you feel it will only be odd make-up for a while, soon it could well be the prototype for sides moving forward.
England have long been at the forefront of attacking batting in limited overs cricket. Since the 2015 World Cup, they have scored faster than any other team, racing along at 6.23 runs per over on average. Now it seems they have taken this approach to Test cricket and, against all odds, it seems to be working. They lost a lot of wickets, but they scored their runs quick enough that at times it didn’t matter.
Jos Buttler is perhaps the best example of this. He made 64 vital runs in England’s second innings of the final Test, and he did so just at the point where it looked as if the visitors may squander a very strong position. He had walked to the crease with his side 39/4. When he departed England were 168/6 and had reestablished their dominance.
Perhaps more interesting than the innings that Buttler played, as counter-punching and effective as it was, was the way he got out. He was dismissed charging the spinner and was out stumped off the bowling of Lakshan Sandakan. Speaking to Sky Sports after the close of play on day three Buttler spoke about his approach. He mentioned that there is a mantra of positivity that is being preached within the England camp, and with positivity comes the increased risk of failure.
“A lot of the time, it’s about trying to make peace with the way of getting out,” Buttler told Sky Sports. “If I got caught on the crease and LBW, I’d be more disappointed with that than getting stumped. The last game I was happier to get out sweeping than I was to play a forward defense. You can sit in the changing room after and make peace with the fact that I stuck with my game plan. I might get out, but you could get out any ball doing anything. If I stick to my game plan and get out, I’m more at ease with that than if I veered away from it.”
And that sums up this England team. It is better to have a plan of attack that you are confident will succeed and fail in the attempt than to be a shrinking violet that isn’t brave enough to try. This won’t always work, but with practice and skill, it can work more often than it fails. And it isn’t half entertaining whether it works or not.
There was a clear move to look to sweep the spinners as much as possible. Cricket analytics firm, CricViz, record and interpret every shot played in international cricket. They have records for this dating back to 2006. Since then no Test match has seen more sweep shots that the second Test of this series in Kandy. There were 254 sweep shots in that match and they brought 12 wickets and 327 runs.
The insistence on the sweep shot actually meant that England have been successful against the Sri Lankan spinners. In the past this has been their fatal flaw, now they have a plan and while it has risks it has huge rewards. Like winning 3-0 in Sri Lanka.
There are times when someone will need to dig England out of the hole that they have happily thrown themselves into. In the first Test their gung-ho approach left them 105/5 and then 164/6. A patient hundred on Test match debut from Ben Foakes hauled them out of the fire. His emergence as a reliable batsman and a world-class wicket-keeper may be the biggest positive to come out of this series.
While the batting was sometimes great and sometimes dreadful, England’s spinners were a consistent threat that was a huge part in this series win. 100 of the 116 wickets that fell across these three matches were taken by spinners. Jack Leach and Moeen Ali ended up with 18 each, Adil Rashid got 12, there was even one scalp for Joe Root’s part-time offies. James Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s two top Test match wicket-takers of all time managed one wicket between them from 55 overs that cost 155 runs.
The most successful seamer was the talismanic all-rounder, Ben Stokes, who may end up with a reasonable if unspectacular batting and bowling average at the end of his career, but he will have a litany of match-turning moments. His run out of Dimuth Karunaratne in Pallekelle when it looked like Sri Lanka were set for a big score was huge. His 10 overs either side of the tea break when Sri Lanka’s first innings fell apart won England the third Test.
According to the Sri Lankan coach, Chandika Hathurusingha, it was Stokes that was the difference between the two teams in the second and third matches. "When things were going our way, Stokes was brilliant with the ball and on the field. He took the game away from us in both games,” Hathurusingha said.
England’s next assignment is away to the Windies, a series they should win. But more importantly, it gives them another chance to further cement this ultra-attacking approach before stiffer challenges ahead. It should be great fun to watch.