Joe Root believes his England side have set down a marker for the challenges ahead in 2021 after starting the year with a decisive first Test victory over Sri Lanka in Galle.
England’s schedule over the next 12 months represents a mouth-watering set of assignments, with home and away series against India, a likely visit from world number ones New Zealand and an Ashes trip next winter all on the cards.
And they inked an early win into the calendar by sealing a seven-wicket success over Sri Lanka, built around a double century from Root, a combined haul of 14 scalps from spinners Jack Leach and Dom Bess and, eventually, a calm day-five pursuit of their 74-run target.
At 14 for three on the fourth evening there was still room for some old doubts to creep in, with the ball spinning dramatically and fielders crowding around the bat.
But they were put to bed by the returning Jonny Bairstow and debutant Dan Lawrence, who quelled the comeback before finishing the job on Monday morning.
The pair finished with a stand of 62, leaving the tourists to celebrate a fourth consecutive overseas win following three in South Africa last winter – something they last managed in 1957.
England have also won their past five Tests in Sri Lanka, mastering unfamiliar conditions on an island where they have previously come out on top three times in their first 12 attempts.
“We’ll take a lot of heart from the way we’ve gone about this game,” said Root.
“If we keep learning from this game, from the good things and also the mistakes that we’ve made, we will be very hard to beat.
“It’s really important that we started off strong this winter, and really pleasing in the manner we have done it. There will be bigger challenges throughout the winter – and beyond – but we are going in the right direction.
“I’m really proud and pleased with the way we’ve started here and how we’ve gone about performing away from home recently. Look back at a couple of years and our record away from home was very poor. For us to have really turned that round is testament to the group of players.”
The tour concludes with Friday’s second Test, though the word ‘tour’ does seem a little grand given England will spend the next four nights in the same hotel before returning to renew battle at the same ground.
England have already been served notice that it should be a tougher ask second time around, with the home side raising their game considerably to make 359 in their second innings following a self-inflicted 135 all out on day one.
“They made it very hard work for us. We know that they are a very good side in these conditions and a very proud team as well, with some high-class players. They’ll be desperate to turn things around,” said Root.
“We’ve just got to keep getting better too.”
Root tipped his cap to Bairstow and Lawrence, the former returning to Test cricket after over a year out and the latter making his first ever appearance. Both made important contributions in building the lead and then showed admirable focus to navigate choppy waters at the conclusion.
With Rory Burns (paternity leave), Ollie Pope (injured) and Ben Stokes (rested) all absent but due to return ahead of next month’s games in India, it was a clear show of strength to have the pair perform so impressively.
“I’m very proud of those guys,” said Root.
“It was always just going to take one partnership, two guys just grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and showing some maturity and calmness out there. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that but for Jonny and Dan to go out and play in that manner is really impressive.
“That’s exactly what you want to see as captain, guys getting opportunities and really taking them in the both hands.”
With the game taking place behind closed doors there was just one England fan able to enjoy the victory live, former web designer Rob Lewis who has remained on the island for 10 months since the initial series was postponed.
Upon reaching his double hundred Root gave him a wave as he looked on from Galle Fort and again sought him out at the conclusion.
“It’s an incredible story. All of the guys really appreciate him being there,” said Root.
“He was almost a beacon for everyone at home watching on the screens. At the end of the game I managed to have a little conversation with him over the phone. It’s a really interesting story and it was lovely for him to enjoy that moment with the rest of the group.”