By Piyal Matilal
On the backdrop of the Kandy fort, Jack Leach took the final wicket to give England a much-awaited series triumph in the sub-continent, their first-ever in Sri Lanka after 2001. Their last victorious Asian tour was in India in 2012-13 whereas their last major away series win was achieved in 2015-16 in South Africa before the Ashes debacle. Hence, for Joe Root and his team, conquering Lanka is indeed a major step towards becoming the top touring side in contemporary cricket.
But how did it happen?
On the face of it, Joe Root scoring a century, Moeen Ali taking 14 wickets in this series (after two Tests) as well as the calming influence of Ben Foakes with the bat and behind the stumps. However, if you look a little bit closer, the seeds of this victory can be traced back to the 20th of April 2018.
As a chief selector, the wise and revolutionary thinker Ed Smith faced an enormous task rebuilding a shattered England team, which had just lost an Ashes series 0-4 and got humiliated against New Zealand, where they were at one point 27 for 9 in a Test match. If the enormity of the task hadn’t dawned on him, Root’s boys lost season’s first home Test at Lord’s, against Pakistan.
Well, after taking charge, what Smith wanted to transmit to this England team is to perform in a different way in different conditions, which requires character and temperament. He viewed the technique of a player as less important than the way they would react to certain situations. This particular aspect influenced his decision-making throughout the summer. As he said himself that he is “prepared to do things that are left-field’.
The change in the attitude was almost immediate, with Jos Buttler being brought back in that second Test against Pakistan, and England’s so-called white-ball specialist delivered with a quick-fire 80 in a crunch situation, which earned him the ‘Man of the Match’ glory.
The introduction of Sam Curran greatly benefitted the team against India. He turned in match-winning performances with bat and ball. Smith also displayed boldness with his controversial recall of Adil Rashid, who had given up red ball cricket altogether. He continued this policy by axing more traditional James Vince and Dawid Malan.
What Smith has achieved by such means is to break the shackles off the England side. The rigid format of a technically-correct player, or an attacking batsman cannot bat in the top 4, a flexible batting or bowling line-up. It is largely a Horses for Courses’ formula as he looks at situations with “instinct and pragmatism”.
Smith follows an uncompromising, un-English method of not worrying what others think, and being prepared to experiment in the quest of finding the right plan. The fact that only four players, Root, Keaton Jennings, Ali and James Anderson, were in that winning starting XI in Sri Lanka from that first Test side in May is a testament to his influence. Within six months, England’s approach to red-ball cricket has been transformed drastically. Now, instead of playing a settled XI across all conditions, they will pick the players according to the situation and their roles will be flexible.
One must feel, much like the limited-over’s set-up, England Test team needed a radical shake up in order to recover from the disastrous winter tours Australia and New Zealand. And Smith has done that job pretty aptly, which has produced immediate results. Following the success against India at home, the ongoing tour of Sri Lanka is the very first time when they have won the Tests, One Day Internationals and T20s series during a single bilateral foreign tour.
Will they continue to have success, only time will tell, but the signs are pretty encouraging.
(Piyal Matilal is an Oxford-based cricket enthusiast. He can be contacted via Facebook.)