As India series looms large: Root wants England to focus on Sri Lanka
Despite having their own Test series against Sri Lanka to focus on, the England squad were keeping one eye on the ups and downs, twists and turns of the just-concluded rubber between Australia and India. Partly, that was not only because of the compelling nature of the contest down under, but also because of the four Tests against India that come thick and fast next month. That challenge, already daunting, now looks even more so.
India's performances at the SCG and the Gabba have certainly raised the stakes ahead of England's visit, and while Joe Root is adamant that he wants his side to look no further than the second Test against Sri Lanka in Galle, beginning on Friday (22 January), there is little doubt that the India series looms even larger over the squad following the events in Australia. Whether England are inspired or intimidated by India's famous victory against Tim Paine's team remains to be seen.
The second Test against Sri Lanka was already an important match for this group of players. England are not yet such a good team away from home that they can take any Test match for granted. A series win in Sri Lanka would be a significant achievement given the absence of some key players, their lack of preparation time, and how difficult it is for visiting teams to win in Galle. But with the India series coming up, it is even more important they take care of business this week so they board their charter flight to Chennai with a spring in their step.
Backing up their first Test win with another will be far from easy for England. Sri Lanka proved on days three and four that they are a formidable side in their own conditions; had they batted slightly better on the first day, they may well even have won. England did exceptionally well to win the opening Test. They will have to do even better to win the second. And for now, that is the immediate focus. "If we start to look four games ahead, we won't give ourselves the best chance of winning right now," Root said.
There are areas of England's play that need to improve from the opening Test, most notably the returns of the openers. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley had a difficult match, scoring 23 runs between them in four innings, and struggled against the left-arm spin of Lasith Embuldeniya, who opened the bowling in both innings. It was a new experience for both Sibley and Crawley, who have been brought up on a diet of new-ball fast-bowling, but one that they must learn how to handle better.
"At times in these conditions out here opening the batting can be the best time to bat," Root said. "On that wicket in the second innings, it was probably the trickiest time to bat. It is very rare that is the case and they will have to learn from that. They are looking at different things whether it is finding strong boundary options or the positions they want to get into when they defend. They are keen to learn and to get better and I see them very quickly picking things up.
"I see it as an opportunity [the next Test] to show that they can play in these conditions. I also see it as being part and parcel of Test cricket. It is part of your development as a young player coming into the side. You need to know how to play in these conditions, and not only will it benefit them long-term playing in Asia, but also in matches where pitches do deteriorate late on anywhere in the world and start spinning drastically. You've got to have a game for it.
"These tours and these games are all about winning, but the experience you get can really benefit you further in your career if you have the right attitude and go about it in the right manner. I feel like they are doing that and that is the best thing they can do. Keep wanting to get better, keep wanting to learn and take as much from the experience as they can."
The spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach will also be wanting a more consistent showing after a slow start to the first Test. There were signs on the fourth afternoon that they were finding their groove, however, and 14 wickets between them, including a five-wicket haul apiece, will have done plenty for their confidence.
"With the little cricket that both of them had played, I thought they grew as the game went on and got better and better," Root said. "I expect that to be the same here as the practice days go on and the game goes on. The more they bowl and the more they find themselves in the pressure situations on the field then the better they will be for it, and we will see them get better as the week unfolds. The fact they came out of the game with a lot of wickets between them is really pleasing and will give them a lot of confidence to hopefully speed that process up."
England will have another look at the surface at training on Thursday before deciding their team. "It does look like we could have played on it today," Root said. "We know it is going to turn; it's just at what stage of the match it's going to turn and how quickly that is going to happen."
Root said that if England think the pitch demands three spinners, they could consider one of Matt Parkinson, Mason Crane or Amar Virdi. Moeen Ali is not fit for selection as he recovers from COVID-19.
There is likely to be rotation in the bowling attack. Olly Stone is in contention to make just his second Test appearance. "It's certainly an option," Root said. "We couldn't be more impressed with how he's gone about his business. He looks fit, strong, he's bowling quick and he's given a very good account of himself. There might be an opportunity for him to play on this tour whether that's this week or further down the line."
The second Test in Galle will no doubt have a bearing on what happens further down the line. If England back-up their performance from the first match, and improve in the areas they need to, they will head to India with confidence. A defeat against Sri Lanka or a performance which displays the same vulnerabilities in the top order and spin attack does not mean they cannot win in India, but will certainly have them concerned ahead of the first Test in Chennai.
"We've played some good cricket and shaping up very nicely. Now it's a question of whether we can carry on in the manner we are and continue to improve," Root said. "India are a very good side at home, so it's going to be a big series to be involved in. There will be some hard cricket and we'll have to be at our best. We're confident we can continue to keep playing well and get some results there."
But first, England need a positive result in Galle this week. There is a lot riding on it.