Winning away from home – it’s one of, if not Test cricket’s toughest challenge. The different conditions and types of opposition around the world, along with the fact that home teams can prepare any tracks they want, have prevented even the best sides from total dominance in the longer format.
England, perhaps more than any side, have found this out the hard way. A year ago, Joe Root’s men went into the first Test of what would be another painful Ashes series without an attack that lacked bite and variety. The reliance was upon a bowling unit that was lethal in seamer-friendly conditions at home but soft and mundane in the harsh climate and rock solid pitches of Australia.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad would keep things tight but fail to provide regular breakthroughs when the ball was not moving around. It was no coincidence that Anderson’s best performance of the series (5-43, second innings at Adelaide) came in a day-night match when batting proved tough. Neither Anderson or Broad had the pace to blast a rampant Aussie side out.
Furthermore, Chris Woakes, who bowls similar speeds to the two aforementioned pacemen, proved to be a shadow of himself in Australia, compared to England. By the end of the winter with the ball, Woakes was averaging 61.78 away, and by the end of the 2018 English summer, he averaged 23.33 at home. The same went for off-spinner Moeen Ali, who found tremendous success in the backseat role of being the sole spinner in England, but struggled when the pressure of being the leading man away from home arrived.
The bottom line was that England, despite also having issues with the batting, had become a one-dimensional side that could not find the right formula away from home. One Test series win abroad since the start of 2013 was not good enough for a side boasting several talented players. Something had to change. England were going nowhere.
Then, when the squad was announced for the tour of Sri Lanka and an extreme trial by spin, national selector Ed Smith picked a squad that would give England different options in the series and going forward. The experience of Anderson and Broad was still there, as were Moeen and Ben Stokes, but also in came left-armer Sam Curran, genuine pace in Olly Stone, leg-spinner Adil Rashid and left-arm off-spinner Jack Leach. This was set to be an attack with a plethora of threats from different angles.
Fast forward two months, and it’s clear to see the key behind Joe Root’s men becoming the first England side to seal a Test series whitewash in Asia. Sure, batsmen stood up – think Ben Foakes and Keaton Jennings in Galle and Joe Root in Pallekele, along with strong contributions from Stokes, Jos Buttler and Curran throughout – but it was the variety in attack that helped England take 20 wickets in all three Tests. Sri Lanka only passed 300 on one occasion.
Leach and Ali, who both finished with 18 wickets in the series, offered control and a serious threat on turning pitches, especially early in the innings. They were England’s talismen in the most prolific series ever for spin in a three-Test series and offered Root’s options to attack both Sri Lanka’s left and right-handed batsmen. The third spinner, Adil Rashid, adopted a different role and was given a license to attack Sri Lanka’s batsmen to make inroads when Ali and Leach could not. Despite being inconsistent, Rashid provided moments of brilliance that proved crucial, none more so than his 5-49 in Colombo that blasted out Sri Lanka, having been 173-1, for 240. It triggered a match-turning collapse that the home side could not recover from.
And even when spin did not work, England had something different in the seam department. Although Broad and Curran combined bowled only 29 overs in the series, along with Stone not appearing, Anderson and Stokes, in particular, played their own important roles. The former offered control (economy of 2.56 – the best of anyone with more than five overs in the series) and the latter offered fierce pace and bounce to rattle Sri Lanka’s batsmen. It was no surprise when the opposition head coach, Chandika Hathurusingha claimed that Stokes ‘was the difference in the last two games’.
England, in this series, had all basis covered. There may have been inexperienced when it came to winning abroad and winning in Asia, but the variety in their attack allowed them to find solutions to the different situations and challenges that faced them. Sri Lanka may be a side that is rebuilding but it also should be noted that, at home, they beat Australia 3-0 two years ago and South Africa 2-0 earlier this year. England’s achievement must not be underestimated.
After a miserable period last winter in which they were hammered by Australia and fell to 27-9 on day one in New Zealand, England have now won eight Tests out nine and seem to have finally found a formula that works outside their home comforts. And as Root rightly stated following his side’s clean sweep in Sri Lanka, England ‘are not one-trick ponies anymore.’