Root provides Sri Lanka spark


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It all began with Joe Root on the final day. He had been the overnight batsman. Moeen Ali was lacing silk with stone at the other end, and Root was blocking for his life. Sri Lanka's seamers began by bowling full. Rangana Herath went over the wicket, then around. Nothing worked. After a shower, and lunch, Sri Lanka asked to change a wet, misshapen ball.

With all that was to follow on day five, Root may not even remember what he said to Angelo Mathews, as Sri Lanka's captain oversaw the umpires' choosing of a new ball. But he did say something. Root spoke for no longer than three seconds, and suddenly Mathews was alive and aggressive, throwing something much longer, and nastier, in his face.

Sri Lanka had spoken since day one about how their attack might rip through England if they could take the match five days, but on the final morning, all the gunpowder they felt they had could not break England down. They needed a spark. A reason to run in harder, and stay keen in the field.

Angelo Mathews shares a few words with Joe Root, England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 5th day, June 24, 2014
Joe Root and Angelo Mathews had plenty to say to each other © Getty Images
Within minutes Root was being harangued before each delivery, at the end of the over, and whenever a Sri Lanka player could get within earshot. For about 20 minutes, Root was a walking dartboard. Sri Lanka players who do not give more than two-word responses to journalists' questions were unleashing wordy tirades. The press box watched on with jealousy as Root collected the best quotes Mathews has ever given in his life.

Perhaps not even Root will know whether the edge he would send to gully was induced in part by the verbal assault. But before his jibe at Mathews, Sri Lanka were like a balloon, slowly deflating in the sun. Root's brief words were a pin prick, but they brought an explosion.

Sri Lanka would not have a smooth ride to the finish, but the intensity they mustered then did not dip until the penultimate ball took James Anderson's splice and floated into Rangana Herath's hands. As Mathews made 10 bowling changes in the final hour, like a man searching through his many pockets for some money, Sri Lanka's desperation was immense.

On a pitch that seemed to have died since the third day, after already having delivered more than 104 overs in the series, Shaminda Eranga found a magic ball formed of nothing but burning desire, and sealed Sri Lanka's first series win in England. Outside Asia, they last defeated top-eight opposition in a series way back in 1995.

Root was Sri Lanka's spark on Tuesday, but the past few months of Sri Lanka's cricket has been defined by the will to flourish in adversity. The players do not blame Paul Farbrace for switching sides in the weeks approaching the tour, but the team understood the strategic significance. They knew their own board was partly to blame for the clipping of one Test in this series, yet seeing that Test handed to India still felt like a slight.

Mathews praise for seamers
On bowling Eranga in the final over: "I tried my best to rotate the bowlers, and when Anderson was on strike, I actually thought he faced Rangana Herath pretty well. He faced about six or seven overs of spin. We couldn't get him out. I thought one last burst - one over left - and I gave it to Eranga, thinking he could bowl some fast, short ones at his body. That's the way we got him out in the first innings as well. Fortunately for us Eranga bowled that brilliant ball to dismiss Anderson."
On Prasad's inclusion: "In England we needed someone who could bowl 85mph, because when the wickets get flat the seamers can't do much, except for the guys who have a bit of extra pace. That's why we played Prasad in this Test match and he responded brilliantly."
On the series win: "It is a boost for the whole team and for Sri Lanka cricket. Winning the first series in England is great motivation for all of us. It's due to all of our hard work. Preparation was fantastic starting from the Ireland tour and leading up to the practice games. Everyone wanted to make it a special series for Sri Lanka cricket, and we did exactly that."
On tour, the officials' reporting of Sachithra Senanayake's action, and the Mankad controversy to follow developed into what the team felt was a siege. Then in the days preceding the Tests, Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, labelled the visiting bowlers just "a glorified county attack". Mathews could not help but smirk, when it had all whirled to its extraordinary end.

"I hope my attack is better than a county attack," he said. "There was a little bit of a debate saying that my attack is not quite good enough for county cricket. That motivated us. We don't have Chaminda Vaas or Muttiah Muralitharan in our team, but we have some guys who are willing to do the job, are working really hard, and they're excited about playing Test cricket."

On paper Sri Lanka were outgunned, but on the final day at Lord's and the last four days at Headingley, they also transposed the fight that has shaped their limited-overs cricket for some time. England seemed headed for a straightforward victory with Sam Robson and Ian Bell at the crease on the second day, but Eranga's epic toil of line and length brought the quick wickets that gave Sri Lanka their first surge in the game. Mathews' 160, and his 149-run stand with Herath came in an even direr situation. Dhammika Prasad's fourth-day burst defies belief, given he had not taken more than one wicket for less than 100 runs in his past 10 Tests.

Sri Lanka have played without a break since early December, save for the few weeks of early IPL, to which none of the 16 men in the Sri Lanka squad had a ticket. With preparation having been so crucial to the trophy-sweep in England, the players will perhaps be glad for that. Since the painful end to the Sharjah Test in January, they have won 22 out of 27 matches, across all formats. Of all their plaudits, a Test series win in England seemed by far the least likely.