Sports

How rare is England’s whitewash victory

If you had any doubt how unusual it was for England to complete a whitewash victory away from home – in a series of three matches or more, anyway – it is worth considering this: the last time it happened, in New Zealand in March 1963, a certain Lee Harvey Oswald was buying a secondhand rifle and a young four-piece band from Liverpool was preparing to release their first album.

About eight months later, that rifle was used to assassinate John F Kennedy. And that album, Please Please Me, by The Beatles, was still No. 1 in the UK album chart.

The only time England had previously completed a whitewash away from home was in early 1896. On that occasion, they defeated South Africa 3-0. Queen Victoria was on the throne and Walter Arnold, of Kent, received the world’s first speeding conviction. He had gone over the permitted 2mph. Quite possibly in fog.

The point of all this? To underline the fact that away whitewash victories are, from an England perspective, desperately rare.

So whatever qualms we may have about this Sri Lanka side, whatever caveats we apply, England have achieved something very unusual.

And when we also consider England’s record in Asia – which is grim – they deserve a huge amount of credit. For while away Ashes wins still seem to gain the most plaudits, the greatest challenge for most England players is winning in Asia where spin dominates (a record 100 wickets fell to spin in the series) and England’s traditional skills – the ability to deliver and defend the swinging, seaming ball – are largely irrelevant. Never before have England completed a whitewash in Asia (in a three-match series) and not since 2001 had they won a series in Sri Lanka. This is significant.

While some will delight in belittling the achievement of Joe Root and his team, it is worth reiterating that this Sri Lanka side – bar one or two exceptions – won in the UAE and Bangladesh not so long ago. They also beat South Africa and Australia at home. They’re not as bad as some would have you believe.

In truth, there wasn’t much between the sides for large parts of the series. In both Kandy and Colombo, there were periods when it appeared Sri Lanka could win. But each time, England found a moment of magic to provide the definitive contribution. In Kandy it was Ben Stokes’ run-out and Keaton Jennings’ fielding that ensured they were to capitalise on Joe Root’s century. In Colombo it was Jack Leach’s run-out, Stokes’ spell of intimidatory bowling and Jennings’ fielding that ensured they capitalised on Jonny Bairstow’s century. The 3-0 scoreline is a little harsh on Sri Lanka.

We have to acknowledge the importance of the toss, too. Root has now won the toss eight times in succession in Test cricket and some of those tosses – not least on this tour – have been crucial. We will never know whether England could have overcome the disadvantage of losing a toss on this tour, but we can probably conclude it would have been far tougher. We have to acknowledge that a combination of Root’s fortune and Sri Lanka’s errors could have flattered England a little. But that Richie Benaud line echoes once more: “captaincy is 90 percent about luck and 10 percent about skill,” he would say. “But don’t try it without that 10 percent.” By such criteria, Root is doing rather well.

He has the potential to be a very good captain. In this series, he was, at various times, brave (both in selection and his complete commitment to the tactics), brilliant (his main job is still to score runs and his century in Kandy was high-class) and, most of all, calm. There is no doubt he has the respect and the support of his team and that behind that affable exterior, there lies a man hungry for a great deal more success. He knows, better than any of his critics, how much more England have to do.

It is Stokes that lifts England above the pack, though. He is a captain’s dream: a batsman who will bat wherever he is required and naturally scores quickly and a bowler who can both swing the ball and unlock dead surfaces with his bouncers. He also has ridiculous stamina and a desire to be in the thick of every game all the time. Mike Brearley’s reputation was underpinned by the ability to field such an allrounder in Ian Botham while Michael Vaughan’s was hugely enhanced by another in Andrew Flintoff. The sight of Stokes running to the long-off boundary and diving to save a ball going for four at the end of the third day might not sound unusual, but he was the bowler at the time. Root knows he has a gem.

Root is almost uniquely fortunate, however, in that he has several allrounders at his disposal. While none of the others – Moeen Ali, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and, up to a point, Adil Rashid – are quite in Stokes’ class, they do provide him with a side offering remarkable depth in batting and bowling. There was, in this series at least, almost always a fresh bowler to turn to for variation, while the batting stretched beyond the horizon. England’s tenth-wicket stands added 101 runs in Kandy. Without them, Sri Lanka would have won.

But the most impressive aspect of this victory was that England did it without the normal pillars of success. For there was no Alastair Cook – player of the series when England won in India in 2012 and in Australia in 2010-11 – and very little Stuart Broad or James Anderson, who claimed one wicket between them across the three Tests.

Instead of trying to find a way to negate opposition spin, England looked for a way to thrash it out of the attack. And instead of trying to find spinners who would keep it tight and create pressure, England told theirs to go for the kill and not to worry about runs. They gave them three, four and even five boundary sweepers at times but, for all their inability to bowl ball after ball on a length, the fact is Moeen and Adil are both capable of wicket-taking deliveries that can unlock could batting line-ups on good surfaces. Nobody is telling them to focus on what they cannot do anymore; they are simply being told to attack. Jack Leach and the seamers can fulfil the holding role when required but basically, Root’s side are on the attack all the time. England teams don’t play like this.

For that reason, this feels like a beginning. It feels as if a new team, created pretty much in Root’s image, is committed to playing the bold brand of cricket that they showed here. It feels as if the spirit of the limited-overs team has spilt into the Test dressing room and created a side which is at its best when it expresses itself and is committed to putting pressure on the opposition. It feels as if the old England – cagey and careful, focused on the percentages and the quinoa – has been replaced by one that feels that, even if it concedes four an over, they will hit five in reply. It feels as if the next few years, whatever they may bring, are going to be a lot of fun.

There is a long way to go. England are now certain to rise to No. 2 in the world rankings, and even could go to No.1 during the summer of 2019 – an Ashes victory will probably do the trick. But to gain real respect, they will have to win in India or Australia and probably both. And, even now, they have won only three of their last 16 away Tests.

Can they win in Australia or India? Probably not just yet. They don’t look a great deal closer to finding the fast bowlers that will be required in Australia – though you can’t help wondering what difference Stokes would have made – and they really do need to nail down a top three that can score heavily and consistently. While Anderson and Broad may well have a role to play against Australia in England, it may well be that neither of them have a role to play in away series against India or Australia. And quite how England hope to dismiss Virat Kohli 10 times in a series in India remains a bit of a mystery. The tour of the Caribbean, just after Christmas, will bring another intriguing test of their progress. They haven’t won there since 2004.

So there is work to do. A huge amount of work. But there’s something good happening here. Something joyful and fun. Sanjay Manjrekar and Co may dismiss this result all they like but England are confronting their weaknesses, challenging their conventions and making progress. It’s almost two years until they go to India. They underestimate Root and Co at their peril.

Cricinfo