England wrap up series whitewash but are made to sweat by spirited Sri Lanka
This was not quite the straightforward formality that had been anticipated. In fact, the Sri Lankans, with their pocket-battleship of a No 11 at the helm, Malinda Pushpakumara, gave England a real fright late in the day. When he arrived at the crease his team needed 101 more runs for victory. Those in charge of the post-match rituals were clearing their throats and checking their lines.
But there is freedom in a hopeless situation. In harness with the captain, Suranga Lakmal, Pushpakumara opened his shoulders against the spinners and drove, cut and swept with abandon, and the ball kept speeding to the boundary – on one occasion way beyond the rope for a straight six.
Joe Root, trying to suggest calmness without quite succeeding, juggled his spinners, the reviews were used up and this unlikely pair made it to a delayed tea, having added 58. By now the new ball had been taken and had been banged into Pushpakumara’s helmet by Stuart Broad.
Then after 20 minutes of contemplation, a delay which England needed, that new ball was tossed to Jack Leach with the batsmen now sensing that this situation was no longer completely hopeless, a realisation that tends to add to the tension. Lakmal pushed forward and the ball thudded into his pad; up went umpire Ravi’s finger and the Sri Lankan review was unsuccessful. A relieved England had won by 42 runs.
Thus Root’s team had survived their second little crisis of the day. The first came in mid-afternoon when the situation was looking a little bleak; Sri Lanka had lost just one wicket, that of Lakshan Sandakan, the nightwatchman, for 131 runs. At this point they were 143 away from an unlikely victory with five wickets remaining. Once again the self-effacing Leach was the man to turn the game.
Since lunch England had changed tack. For once the spinners tried to squeeze the batsmen, to stem the flow of easy singles. Leach, England’s most accurate spinner, was operating to a solitary slip and a ring of fielders saving the single, inviting the higher risk shot in pursuit of a boundary. Adil Rashid did something similar; he bowled slowly, wide of off-stump in order to frustrate the batsmen, Kusal Mendis, who had played silkily throughout, and the adhesive Roshen Silva.
In this period Leach bowled his best spell for England, with nothing to show for it. He beat the outside edge often and there were no free runs. The batsmen were showing signs of frustration; Mendis called for a single to mid-off and eventually realised that his partner was not interested; Broad’s throw was wayward and Mendis could scurry back.
Then Silva flicked the ball on the leg side against Rashid and decided there was a second run. Leach hared in from the square-leg boundary and heeded the call to throw to the bowler’s end. Leach rarely swoops but this most conscientious of cricketers has made himself a much better fielder now. He gathered cleanly and hurled the ball towards Rashid – right-handed (we know that this is the case but did the Sri Lankan batsmen?). His throw shattered the stumps and Mendis was out by a yard. Having witnessed a good chunk of Leach’s cricket during his passage towards Test level, I can surmise this was a career-best effort from Leach in the field.
Until then England had been frustrated. It had initially taken them half an hour to remove Sandakan, caught at slip off Leach. Mendis, meanwhile, had been scoring freely against the spinners while taking minimal risks and Silva had settled easily enough. Leach gave little away but Moeen Aliand Rashid were bowling in their “attacking” vein, which can occasionally become a euphemism for too many loose deliveries. The pitch was still offering regular turn but the bounce was consistent and in these conditions, as we have seen throughout the series, good batsmen can survive and prosper.
Root understandably tried Ben Stokes, who propelled five overs, comprised mostly of short deliveries. But this time the Sri Lankan batsmen dealt with this challenge rationally so that Stokes’s toil went unrewarded.
At lunch England obviously decided to try to squeeze the batsmen more, a ploy which worked – and which has been all too sparingly used in this series – though no one could have predicted that Leach would produce such a dazzling piece of fielding. The victim, Mendis, a batsman of transparent talent, had played his best innings of the series but it would not be a decisive one.
Niroshan Dickwella flickered as he normally does but he fell to Leach, caught at leg slip by Keaton Jennings for a run-a-ball 19, after which England circled their prey with Moeen rediscovering his rhythm. He dismissed Dilruwan Perera, another victim at short leg for Jennings, who took his sixth catch of the game, which equals the record for an England fielder in Test cricket.
Then a cunning review disposed of Sri Lanka’s last remaining batsman, Silva. A sharp turning Moeen off-break was hit to the off side but had it brushed Silva’s pad before touching the bat? It had.
Now Pushpakumara swung with fine judgment against the spinners, belying his place in the order and denting Leach’s figures – and arguably his best afternoon as an England bowler – by taking 14 runs from three balls. But in the end, as has been the case throughout a thoroughly captivating series, Root’s team found a way to prevail.