Sri Lanka v England: 'Tourists tick boxes but still room for improvement'

By Jonathan AgnewBBC cricket correspondent
Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow celebrate England's seven-wicket win
England needed just 35 minutes to secure victory on the fifth day

It was by no means a perfect performance but, in beating Sri Lanka by seven wickets in the first Test, England will feel they ticked a lot of boxes.

Before the match the main issues were runs for captain Joe Root, wickets for spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach, Jonny Bairstow's return at number three and Jos Buttler's wicketkeeping in spinning conditions.

Root scored a double hundred, Bess and Leach both claimed a five-wicket haul, Bairstow batted really well and Buttler's glovework, one minor blemish aside, was outstanding in Galle.

Catches were dropped, the spinners must improve and the openers - my biggest concern - need runs, but you cannot ask for much more than that. It was an encouraging start.

Bairstow's maturity and 'bring it on' attitude got England over the line on Sunday. He has been out of the side but when England wobbled at 14-3 he was there.

Dan Lawrence, too, will have learned so much by finishing 21 not out on debut, to go with 73 in the first innings.

The pressure when the 23-year-old came out on the fourth evening was immense. He will not have been in a situation like that before in his life.

You can reach one or two judgements watching someone in their first Test - in particular, whether they are nervous or looks out of their depth. Lawrence did not look like that at all. It was a terrific debut.

Leach and Bess must bowl more maidens

Jack Leach
Jack Leach was playing his first Test since November 2019

I was struck by the honesty of Bess and Leach when both said they could have bowled a lot better.

Their wickets return - eight for Bess and five for Leach - was impressive, but there were issues.

Their problem was they did not create enough pressure. Sri Lanka's spinners had the same problem.

A spinner's job on turning pitches is to make the batsman feel as though he doesn't know where his next run is coming from, but the spinners on both sides were unable to bowl six consecutive balls pitching in the same place.

You do not have to do a lot to take wickets. If you pitch the ball on a good line and length the surface will do the damage.

England's frontline spinners bowled only 15 maidens in 79 overs and that is something the coaches will be looking at before the second Test begins on Friday.

Leach and Bess improved as the game wore on and the lack of match practice - particularly for Leach, who has hardly played for 12 months - is clearly an extenuating circumstance.

When you go back to bowling after a long break you have all sorts of things running through your head. You think about your action, where your feet are, how you are landing at the crease, how the ball is coming out of your hand and other basic issues.

When a bowler is in rhythm they don't even think about those things and can concentrate on getting the batsman out.

With that in mind, Leach and Bess should improve as the winter continues.

Decisions to be made at the top

Dom Sibley is bowled playing no shot to Lasith Embuldeniya
Dom Sibley scored six runs in the match

England's main point to consider after this match is the opening batsmen.

The fact left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya dismissed Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley cheaply in both innings is something that will have been noted both by Sri Lanka and England's next opponents, India.

Both openers need to work out a plan. Crawley strikes me as being more adaptable but Sibley is going to have to look at the way he plays the spinners, regularly looking to hit them into the leg side.

Bairstow's form - he made 47 and a match-clinching unbeaten 35 - will have given the selectors something to think about for that tour of India starting next month.

With Rory Burns waiting in the wings having missed this series for the birth of his child, England have four players to fit into three spots.

A top three of Sibley, Burns and Crawley was their choice last summer, but will they consider Bairstow a better option at three in the sub-continent?

In this match, Bairstow once again showed himself to be a very good player of spin. He also brings a lot of character to the team and is good around the bat as a close catcher, something you need in India.

We will have to keep a close eye on how Sibley fares in the next match.

Anderson to replace Broad for second Test?

I expect the second Test to produce a closer result than the first.

Both teams should be better for having played some cricket; Sri Lanka improved significantly in their second innings. They will consider replacing out-of-form batsman Kusal Mendis and may also look at changing the spinners who support the impressive Embuldeniya.

At least one England change seems certain - James Anderson will come in for Stuart Broad. England have talked about rotating their bowlers this winter and that seems sensible.

It is good to see all-rounder Moeen Ali back after his period of isolation, having tested positive for coronavirus, but it looks like he will have to wait until India for his chance.

He was behind Leach and Bess in the pecking order and unlikely to play before his illness. Now Moeen has even more ground to make up.

The winter is only going to get tougher, but if England can get another win in Galle and with more players finding form, they will be in the best shape possible to at least challenge India.

Jonathan Agnew was speaking to BBC Sport's Matthew Henry.

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