England captain Joe Root has praised his side’s adaptability in alien conditions with helping secure a first overseas whitewash since 1963, with victory over Sri Lanka confirming a 3-0 series win.
Spin was historically dominant in the three-match series, with 100 wickets out of 116 falling to slow bowlers – more than any other series of fewer than five matches in history. While previously England might have crumbled in the face of such a challenge, this time, with bat and ball, they’ve stood up to the task.
“We’ve had to do things very differently here,” Root said. “It’s been amazing how much the ball has turned. So the most pleasing thing is how quickly we adapted to that. We’ve had to adapt and grow as a group.
“We’ve been brave. We’ve done things differently to how we have in the past, but that’s not frightened us. We really bought into that and played it to our advantage. We’ve got three wonderful spinners that complement each other very well, backed up very ably by some very good seam bowling.
“It’s nice to know we don’t just rely on Anderson and Broad. We gave opportunities for young, less experienced guys to step up and show their worth. Those three spinners dovetailed really well and built pressure.”
Root acknowledged that there will be other challenges that England will have to find ways of coping with. “We’ve got to be open to doing things differently wherever we go. We’ve done things in a certain way in these conditions. But it will be different in the West Indies, different in South Africa and obviously very different in Australia next time we’re over there. That’s the one we really want to get right.
“But we’ve got some time to figure out what’s going to work for us and adapt our squad to exploit those conditions. It’s about being adaptable and we’ve shown we can do that. We’ve shown we are not a one-trick pony any more. And that should fill us with a huge amount of confidence going into future tours.”
He also singled out some players for special praise, reserving his highest compliments for Ben Stokes, who topped the series bowling averages, scored two important half-centuries, and claimed a number of excellent catches at slip.
“Look at Rory Burns, as an example,” Root said. “He’s been a consistent performer at the top of the order for Surrey, but has spent most of his time facing seam bowling with the ball zipping around. Here, on his first trip with England and all the pressures that brings, he has faced spinners with a new ball, which is completely different to anything he will have experienced before. But he has been brilliant and played a vital role. That’s one example of how we’ve adapted and grown as a group.
“Moeen has really stepped up as a senior bowler and led the way. He’s been quite vocal at times on plans and trying to get the best out of the other two guys and he deserved a lot of credit. Foakes has been brilliant, too. He has come into the team on very difficult surfaces, stood up to the stumps for long periods of time and looked pretty faultless. It’s great to see him take to Test cricket as well as he has.
“But we all know that, at any stage, Ben Stokes can turn a game on his own. There were a couple of moments of brilliance in the field in Kandy and then here he found a way as a seam bowler to expose batters on this surface. That’s a great skill. With bat and ball, he’s adapted to different roles, whether that’s been looking for reverse swing, trying to bowl short, or batting up and down the order.
“He always gives absolutely everything and he’ll never shy away from any challenge put in front of him. He’s a complete team man and sets a brilliant example to the rest of the group. He is a great leader within that dressing room.”
The success so many of England’s players have had leaves England with some dilemmas going forward. Of the 13 players used by England, all but two – James Anderson and Stuart Broad – either scored a half-century or took four wickets in an innings at some point in the series. Root sees England’s selection headaches as a sign of the squad’s strength.
“Look at any side that’s No.1 in the world,” Root said. “They’ always got some very good players missing out. That’s where we want to be. We want to keep pushing, keep improving and get to that No.1 status. If we’re really serious about that, guys are going to have to work very hard and accept that on occasions they’re going to miss out. Having that environment is going to keep driving the guys in the team forwards.
“It feels like we’re in a good place at the moment, we can’t be happy with where we are. We’ve got to keep looking to improve. We’ve a lot of hard work to do, but it’s great to see us grow at a team on this trip.”
That Root’s desire to reach No.1 in the world feels realistic is testament to the strides the Test side have made in the last eight months. Having come through a winter in which England were beaten 4-0 by Australia to surrender the Ashes before suffering the ignominy of being bowled out for 58 by New Zealand, Root finally feels he is stamping his mark as a captain.
“I felt I was growing into the role very nicely towards the end of the India series,” Root said. “We’ve done things very differently here and I’ve had to drive that and made a point of it. People might have thought ‘that’s a bit radical’ but it’s really worked for us and that’s a great lesson for this group moving forward and for me as captain. It has filled me with a huge amount of confidence. Everyone has really accepted it and bought into it and now we have seen it work. Hopefully this can be the start of this team really growing.”