England claimed their first away win in a Test match for two years and their first in history at Galle, Sri Lanka’s fortress, by a thumping 211-run margin with a day to spare after outplaying the hosts in every department.
The tourists had earned themselves two days to bowl out Sri Lanka but needed just one. A rest day is their reward as they reflect on as accomplished an all-round performance as England have put in on the sub-continent in many a year.
In Keaton Jennings and Ben Foakes, the tourists boasted the two batsmen who got to grips with the surface better than any other – Jennings by sweeping his way to 146* in the second innings and Foakes by playing straight and digging in to find 107 runs and haul England out of first-innings trouble. Those two, plus debutant Rory Burns, walked off the field with a stump each by way of a memento.
With the ball, England leant on their newly-gilded spin trio and on day four, it was Jack Leach and Moeen Ali once again who did the heavy lifting for England, taking seven more wickets, though the other bowlers played their parts.
Sam Curran and James Anderson both bowled tight, economic spells to frustrate the undisciplined Sri Lankan batsmen and, just as importantly, create patches of rough for the spinners to aim for.
Ben Stokes came in during the afternoon session and played an aggressive role with the ball, targeting Kusal Mendis with a spell of short bowling that built some pressure on one of the hosts’ principal dangermen, eventually contributing to his dismissal.
Mendis would play the sort of shot that no batsman tasked with batting for two days should ever play, trying to obliterate Leach over extra-cover for the second successive delivery and being duly punished as Ali scrambled around to take a simple catch when the ball looped in the air.
Even with such an imposing, nigh-on impossible target to chase, there is a baseline you would expect in elite sport. In this situation, that baseline was trying to bat for hours and hours, knowing that if you can get to the close of play then rain may save you in a city where a biblical storm is only ever hours away.
Dinesh Chandimal was the next to go, another Leach victim who was utterly helpless to repel a ball that fizzed and drifted to pitch on leg stump before spinning back across the squared-up Chandimal to clip the off-bail.
Leach has been supreme all Test for England, bowling tight, aggressive spells that would be effective even on a track that wasn’t receptive to turn. When it is gripping like it did at Galle, Leach is clearly a weapon.
In the first innings, the England spinners took eight of ten wickets. Second time around it was nine and Ali’s haul of 8/134 were his best-ever match figures in Tests overseas. Curiously, he got more wickets than he did runs in this match which is clearly far from ideal for somebody batting at three and will likely become a talking point in the coming week as we look to Kandy.
For now, though, the mood is of celebration and not just for England.
In Galle, the hometown of Rangana Herath, this Test match has always been about the 40-year-old spinner’s final farewell.
Banners around the ground bearing his image have loomed over the cricket all week and though the final act of his 19-year Test career was to be run-out chasing a second bye, with the third umpire confirming he just no longer had the legs, his reception was fitting for the greatest left-arm bowler to ever play the game.
He walked off the field on a red carpet with the Sri Lankan flag waving above his head. It wasn’t a win, but it was how he wanted to go out.
For England, this is how they want to go on.
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