Joe Root is backing his young openers to come through the tough initiation of a maiden Test tour of Asia stronger for the experience.
Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley both failed to reach double figures in either innings of the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle and both fell to spin, the same spinner in fact, each time.
Sibley got a faint edge to a ball from left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya which drifted in and spun away slightly for a slips catch while on 4 in the first innings before Crawley chipped to mid-off for 9. On 2 in the second innings, Sibley appeared stunned by Embuldeniya’s arm ball which took the top of off stump, and Crawley fell for 8 to an ill-conceived drive taken at gully.
But Root believed Sibley and Crawley, who are 13 and 9 matches respectively into their Test careers, were in the best position to learn fast.
“They are doing all the right things in practice and giving themselves the best opportunity when they walk out to play,” Root said. “It didn’t quite fall for them this time but they are quick and smart learners who will be looking to turn things round in the next game.
“It is very exciting that the work ethic is there and it is a great chance for them to adjust quickly to these conditions and show everyone that they’ve got the game to perform out here. At times in these conditions out here, opening the batting can be the best time to bat. 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.”
With regular opener Rory Burns headed to India after paternity leave as England begin the second Test, also in Galle, on Friday, Crawley, who scored a warm-up match century on the aborted tour of Sri Lanka early last year, can return to his “favoured position” at No. 3 when that swing of the tour begins. But a solid performance at the very top of the order beforehand would be a welcome confidence boost.
Likewise, Sibley will be keen to turn things around before facing sterner opposition in India.
“I see it as an opportunity to show that they can play in these conditions and I also see it as being part and parcel of Test cricket,” Root added. “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.”
Root will expect ruthlessness from his side in the second Test against Sri Lanka.
England won the first Test by seven wickets early on the last day but, by Root’s own admission, it was by no means a perfect performance. Having skittled Sri Lanka for 135 in the first innings and then put on 421 in response, built on Root’s 228 and supported by debutant Dan Lawrence’s 73 at No.5, they were made to work considerably harder as Sri Lanka posted a second-innings 359.
“You look at the best teams in the world who are winning consistently and that’s a trait you see over and over again and that is something we want, to be associated with being a side who – when they get on top – can see it through,” Root said.
England secured victory comfortably in the end and Root wants to see more of the same when the sides return to Galle, especially ahead of four Tests against India, who vanquished Australia at the Gabba to seal a thrilling 2-1 series triumph.
“India have got tremendous depth in all departments,” Root said. “They’re a side with resilience and character and we know we will have to be at our best when we go out there.
“We’ve certainly played some good cricket and are 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 was at pains not to look much beyond the match at hand, however, where England will contemplate picking Olly Stone to make only his second Test appearance as they look to rotate their seamers.
“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. Of course it would be nice to see him play more Test cricket and all he can do is make sure he’s ready to go if that’s the right call.”
Root hinted that spinners Jack Leach and Dom Bess could hold their places, despite the England squad having three more reserve spinners on tour.
“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.”
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.