Four away Test wins in a row for the first time since the mid-1950s. If this is not a feather in England’s cap, it is a sweatband to go under their helmet, or a bandana to tie around their brow while bowling, like Stuart Broad’s in Galle.
It would not be the most gob-smacking surprise if England did not win another Test this winter. For this victory they owed so much to Sri Lanka’s turmoil on day one when their captain was injured before the toss, when the hosts had arrived back from South Africa less than a week before, and when their practice on the eve of the Test had been washed out, unlike England’s.
Always bat first after winning the toss, goes the adage, but an exception to this rule is when a team is in turmoil. This was the case in the Ashes Test of 2009 at Headingley, after England had barely slept because of a hotel fire alarm and Matt Prior’s back seized up just before the start. The team in turmoil, if batting first, rather than calming down in the field, can be blown away in a session.
But then it would not be the most gob-smacking surprise if England won another Test, or two, this winter. Even if the shelf in their cupboard marked “Spin” is almost bare, they have - under Chris Silverwood’s coaching and Joe Root’s captaincy - developed a system whereby they make the most of their resources at home and abroad, the latest evidence being the swift integration of Dan Lawrence into Test cricket in two demanding circumstances.
Root’s three previous away wins were in South Africa a year ago, when the forces of South African cricket were pulling in opposite directions. Still, it was a fine effort by England to pick themselves up after being so sick at Centurion - will it eventually prove to have been a forerunner of Covid-19? - and, without making excuses for that initial defeat, bounce back to win at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
On the previous occasion England won four in a row abroad, South Africa were again the opposition for the last two of those Tests in 1956-7, and tough nuts to crack; but, for the first two, New Zealand were a sitting duck, nothing like they are now. Len Hutton’s team rolled up in need of a holiday after winning the Ashes in Australia in 1954-55, and New Zealand’s cricket has seldom been so weak. At Auckland, England dismissed New Zealand for the lowest Test total, 26, to win by an innings.
In Galle on Friday, Mark Wood will surely be replaced after he had to be flogged into the ground to keep the heat on Sri Lanka’s tail; and Ollie Pope cannot come back soon enough, to be more flexible, both as a close-fielder and batsman, than Dom Sibley. With Ben Stokes to return in India, England are growing a wonderful middle-order, but they cannot be expected to rescue the team every time from 20 for two or three.
One novel factor in favour of England extending their run of away victories will be, as a result of Covid, the absence of crowds. The Barmy Army, and other supporters, have often acted as England’s 12th man abroad, notably in Cape Town last winter, but in India they have not outnumbered home supporters (except on the final day of a Test). If England collapse at the start of an innings in Chennai or Ahmedabad, there will be less cause to panic in an empty stadium.
Herein lies a major reason for England not stringing together a victorious run abroad since the 1950s, until now. Fielders clustered around an incoming England batsman would appeal for lbw or a bat-pad catch, seconded by tens of thousands of spectators, with the umpires tense and therefore more likely to raise a finger. Even in the days of neutral umpires and the Decision Review System, this facet of home advantage could sway the issue, in any part of the world.
But Root, having won his eighth Test abroad to set against eight defeats, when most England captains have had a far worse record away, has earned this fortune.