“Get in!” yelled Jonny Bairstow after thumping a sweep, the shot England utilised to great effect throughout this first Test, to reach their target of 74. A seven-wicket win confirmed for a 1-0 lead in this two-match series against Sri Lanka inside on the final day. A collapse of 14 for three sent shock through the hearts and minds of fans at home. All that was left to ask when this was done and dusted before 5am GMT was, simply, what were you worried about?
These were not unreasonable fears, of course. Merely an ingrained belief the England Test side will always make things difficult for themselves. Their routes to success are rarely scenic. But the jeopardy at the end of day four was made to feel misplaced when the final 36 runs were ticked off in as many minutes by Bairstow (35 not out) and Dan Lawrence (21*), with a couple of speculative shouts against them and little else.
Here was a fifth consecutive win in Sri Lanka, a country where they used to take in the beautiful sights for the tax of being made to look the fools. The overnight pair ensured there was no hint of the latter, the 60 partnership between them early signs of a batting order on song in the first of 17 Tests in 2021.
No doubt the performances of Lawrence on debut and Bairstow, in his first Test since December 2019, will be regarded as “good problems to have”, returning 94 and 82 runs in the match respectively. Their opportunities in this XI came down to the absences of Ben Stokes, opener Rory Burns and middle-order batsman Ollie Pope. Steering England to four consecutive away wins since a sequence between 1955 and 1957, to accompany handy first innings scores for both – Bairstow with 47, Lawrence with a composed 73 – suggests selectors, coaches and captain Joe Root will have a tough few sit-downs when that more-established trio return for the four-match series in India.
The seven dismissals needed by Sri Lanka on day five was always going to be tricky, even with the first three coming easy in the first six overs of the fourth innings. But all the intensity built up on Sunday evening, that suffocating pressure on England’s batsman, with a nagging sense that every ball had wicket-taking potential had dissipated.
Dinesh Chandimal tried to find it four balls into play when he reviewed an LBW appeal against Dan Lawrence after the right-hander tried and failed to reverse sweep Dilruwan Perera. A bit of bat meant the “not out” decision from on-field umpire Kumar Dharmasena was upheld.
The knock-on effect was a review not called upon two overs later when the same umpire shook his head when the same bowler struck the front pad of the same batsman. Replays showed a predicted path clipping Lawrence’s leg stump.
England would have been 46 for three and, maybe, those nerves will have come bubbling back to the service. That was the last delivery that flummoxed either right-hander. They ticked along for some handy not outs, getting the job done in 56 deliveries.
Victory may have been achieved on day five, but it was day one’s effort of dismissing Sri Lanka for just 135 that ensured England possessed the initiative. Root rubber-stamped their authority with 228, a fourth career double hundred, to establish a first-innings lead of 286. It meant, as well as Sri Lanka batted in their second effort for 359 to fashion a lead of their own, the tourists did not need to over-exert themselves in a subdued finale.
This was no means a perfect England performance, however, it was one important for progression, both of the squad into the next five subcontinent Test and individuals such as Dom Bess and Jack Leach. Both spinners returned five-wicket hauls – Bess’ five for 30 in the first innings more fortuitous than Leach’s five for 122 in the second – though more instructive was how they found greater consistency of length as the match wore on. With such a limited build-up into this match, the 92 overs between the off-spinner and left-armer were just as valuable for the long-term as their 14 wickets.
The second and final Test of the series begins on Friday at the same venue, on a different pitch. It will likely play similar to this one: turn throughout, getting more pronounced and treacherous as the match wears on, but with runs for anyone with a trustworthy technique and clear head.
For Sri Lanka, the short turnaround means not all their injury doubts will have eased. Left-hand opening batsman Dimuth Karunaratne, their full-time Test captain, was ruled out on the first morning of this Test with a broken thumb and is likely to remain absent for the second. A call will be made on his fitness and others in the coming days.