Monday saw England win the second match of the two-Test series on a remarkable fourth day in which 15 wickets tumbled as the tourists chased down 164. They clinched the series 2-0 to extend their away-win record to five in a row.
Three innings played out inside 82 overs, first with England bowled out in their first innings for 344, giving up a lead of 37. Some slack batting, set off by four wickets each for Dom Bess and Jack Leach, saw Sri Lanka rolled for 126 to set a total of 164 for the series win. A 57 not out from Dom Sibley and unbeaten 46 by Jos Buttler saw the tourists home by six wickets.
Against a strong India side lifted by a remarkable 2-1 series win in Australia, the England captain hopes his charges tap into this level of fight for the four-match series, which begins on 5 February.
“For me, the most impressive thing this week was that for a large proportion of it we were behind the game, chasing the game,” Root said.
“Firstly, to hold the game for as long as we did and make it very difficult for them to get away from us was impressive. And for our seamers to be effective as they were on that wicket show the improvement in taking wickets in these conditions, something we’ve struggled with in the past. And more than anything the way we’ve dealt with pressure today, both in the field and with the bat.
“To have that expectation for our spinners to win the game, restrict them to a total we could chase down, for guys with very little cricket behind them to take that on themselves was a brilliant effort. And then for our batters to stay as calm and as poised as they did and that partnership towards the end was really impressive. Probably one of the hardest things to manage in this part of the world."
Such joy in unfamiliar conditions, after losing the toss twice and without the likes of Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, was a great boost to a side who found heroes elsewhere.
While Root took on the brunt of the run-scoring load, with knocks of 228 and 186 within 426 runs, the rest of the contributions were spread around through the series. Sibley, Buttler and newcomer Dan Lawrence registered half-centuries, with spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach taking 12 and 10 wickets, respectively, while senior bowlers James Anderson (six), Stuart Broad and Mark Wood (both collecting three) played supporting roles.
Earning those rewards has come through a sharing of information within the group, whether between player and coach or among the players themselves. Sibley, for example, had six runs in three innings before registering his fifth Test score above fifty. He put the success to working with Root to adopt his decisiveness against the turning ball, along with sessions in the nets with batting consultant Jacques Kallis.
“As a whole batting group, we have had lots of discussions about how to play spin in these conditions, how that fits in with your own individual game,” said Root. “It’s testament to the work that he [Sibley] has put in to figure out his own method on a fourth-day wicket, very extreme conditions. To see us across the line in a high-pressure environment like that is really impressive. Especially off the back of a couple of low scores."
Those taking part in the first two India Tests travel on Wednesday from Sri Lanka and into quarantine for six days. They then have three days training before the first match in Chennai. Root admits going back into isolation and then coming out of it will be “strange” but feels they have more than enough in the bank after the last three weeks in Sri Lanka to cope.
Confidence has also been boosted by the perfect start to 2021, with 15 Tests to come. And though there are thoughts ahead to the away Ashes series that will close out the year, success in spinning conditions - scoring runs, taking 20 wickets - is a template to carry forward into next month.
“That is exactly what we wanted. The challenge now is to replicate this over and over again as a team,” he said.
“We have to look at this as a platform, a starting position, and not be happy with what we’ve achieved here. We’ve got four very important games coming up against arguably the best team in the world in their own conditions.
“But the guys know there is so much further this group can go. We have just got to stay hungry and we have just got to keep looking to get better.
“We’ll have to play right at the top of our game to win out in India, but we couldn’t be in a better place to go and challenge them. That really excites me and it should excite the rest of the group as well.”
India’s challenge as Test cricket’s number two ranked side will be far greater than that of six-placed Sri Lanka. The return of captain Virat Kohli and other absentees from an injury-hit Australia tour puts them as favourites. England lost 4-0 here on their previous visit back in 2016.
Root will be looking to replicate Alastair Cook’s side of 2012 , the first England team to win away in India since the 1984/85 tour. It was at the end of the 2012 tour that Root made his debut and the 30-year-old will receive his 100th cap for the first match of this series.
Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur was enthusiastic about England’s chances in India having spent the last few weeks watching on from the balcony at Galle. He believes Root, man of the series, holds the key.
“We saw good signs for England with Bess and Leach and Joe Root has batted at another level on this tour. Joe Root has been the difference, he’s certainly been the beacon that I’ve always tried to use as an example to our batsmen. I think he’s been quite outstanding. So I think England can go to India with every chance of winning that Test series. I think it’ll be a good one.”