When the fourth day began, England’s only road to victory in this brilliant Test match appeared to be long and winding, taking them deep into Tuesday
For the first time since 1914, England have won five away Tests on the spin. Their epic 2021 is underway with a 2-0 win, which should never be sniffed at away from home – especially when losing two tosses and with a host of top players unavailable. Greater challenges lie in wait in India, where they fly this week, but this is a terrific victory.
England had begun the day by adding five runs to their overnight 339 for nine, conceding a first-innings deficit of 37. They then proceeded to bowl Sri Lanka out for 126, before chasing 164 despite the dominant Joe Root making just 11 (taking his series tally to 426).
The chase was not without its nervy moments, but when is it ever not with the ball turning on the subcontinent? England batted around Sibley, who played bravely given he made six runs in three innings before this, with Jonny Bairstow and Buttler providing the impetus.
It was a dramatic morning session that saw the game lurch forward. England added those five runs, then took six wickets, three each for the spinners Jack Leach and Dom Bess.
Bess and Leach bowled much better than their wicketless first innings, but were the beneficiaries of the sort of charitable batting not seen from Sri Lanka since the first day of the series, when they were bowled out for 135. Kusal Perera and Angelo Mathews tried big sweeps, Dinesh Chandimal – with cheeky words from Root ringing in his ears – fell slogging, and Niroshan Dickwella chipped to cover.
Shortly after lunch, the pair had another wicket each, leaving Sri Lanka 78 for eight, just 115 in front.
It was timely, then, that Lasith Embuldeniya, who has been Sri Lanka’s best bowler by such a distance, made his highest first-class score (40, previously 26). He put the pressure back on Leach and Bess with a series of boundaries, meaning Root turned to himself.
The captain duly picked up Embuldeniya and Asitha Fernando in successive balls. Root’s series has been a statistical feast as he rose to fourth in England’s run-scoring charts, but the number that might please him most is those two wickets taking his bowling average (47.19) had dipped under his batting average, which is ticking back towards 50.
Root’s wickets also meant England took all 10 wickets with seam in the first innings, and all 10 with spin in the second.
But for Embuldeniya’s intervention, England would have been chasing even less. Their fielders had helped, with Zak Crawley taking three catches at short leg, and Jimmy Anderson – only required to bowl two overs – sprinting back to take a skier off Chandimal at mid-on.
The sight of Leach and Bess looking so threatening and the ball turning plenty was conflicting for England fans, though; if they could, surely Embuldeniya – who took seven for 137 in the first innings – could too. And so it proved.
He picked up the wickets of Crawley and Bairstow, before Root fell to Ramesh Mendis in strange fashion, bowled behind his legs sweeping. Root and Embuldeniya have been the outstanding players in the series; strangely, Root dismissed Embuldeniya more often than Embuldeniya dismissed Root.
Embuldeniya picked up one more, Dan Lawrence, taking him to 10 for the match, but in the obdurate Sibley – who survived three “umpire’s call” lbw reviews – and Buttler’s clinical class in chases, England had enough in the tank to complete a remarkable victory.
Watch: Joe Root urges England side to build on Sri Lanka series win