Stokes and Jennings heroics in the field and England spin trio leave their mark at the home of Muralitharan
Sri Lanka v England takeaways: 'Almost unflappable' Rory Burns looks the heir to Alastair Cook's top-order throne
Burns sizzles as openers stake their claim
The arrival of Rory Burns at the top of England’s innings could not have come at a better time. Year after year, England struggled to find a reliable opening partner for the relentless run machine Alastair Cook, as the great and the not so good of the County Championship tried and failed to make the step up to Test level. And when Cook finally called time on his career in the summer, alarm bells were ringing.
Burns, though, had earned his chance, scoring consistently – 1,359 at an average of 64.71 – as he captained Surrey to the Division One title last season.
The 28 year old may not have reached triple figures in Pallekele, but his calm and assured knocks of 43 and 59 in England's 57-run win were vital as the tourists sealed the three-match series. His captain Joe Root described Burns as “almost unflappable”.
With opening partner Keaton Jennings having ended his miserable run drought with an unbeaten 146 in the first Test, England may have finally solved their long-term opening issues.
Stokes and Jennings provide fielding masterclass
Neither Jennings nor Ben Stokes contributed anything with the bat in the second Test, but boy did they prove their worth in the field.
In Sri Lanka’s first innings, it was Stokes who produced game-changing moments at vital times.
The home side were looking good at 126-2 on Day 2 in reply to England’s 290 when the all-rounder brilliantly ran out Dimuth Karunaratne for 63, with the Sri Lankan looking well set for a big score.
Just a few overs later, Stokes was at it again, this time with a stunning one-handed catch to bag Kusal Mendis at slip.
It was Jennings' turn to don the Superman fielding cape in the second innings with two moments of sheer brilliance – first a one-handed catch at short leg to remove Dhananjaya de Silva followed by a remarkable parry up in the air for wicketkeeper Ben Foakes to snaffle, with Karunaratne again the victim of brilliant England fielding.
Jennings insisted afterwards England's heroics in the field was “no fluke” crediting assistant coach – and former England all-rounder – Paul Collingwood for making a “big impact” on the team.
English trio prove kings of spin at home of Muralitharan
It would be rude not to mention England’s spin trio after their efforts on the dusty Sri Lankan tracks.
Jack Leach, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid took 19 of the 20 wickets in Pallekele, with the former claiming eight in the match – including 5-43 in the second innings – in only his second Test.
Moeen is now the series’ joint-leading wicket taker with 14 and Rashid, while still guilty of throwing down far too many pies and giving away easy runs, has still produced the odd unplayable snorter to justify his selection.
Few will ever get close to matching the exploits or the skills of local hero Muttiah Muralitharan, but the three English spinners have just made their own little marks on Murali’s home turf.
Mathews proves the one bright spark for hosts
It has been a turbulent time in the career of Sri Lankan batsman Angelo Mathews. He stepped down as captain in all three formats last year – following an ODI series defeat to Zimbabwe – but was coaxed back to lead the ODI team … only to be axed following the team’s poor show in this year’s Asia Cup in the UAE.
Furious at being made a “scapegoat” for their early exit, Mathews flirted with retirement before he was dropped ahead of the recent ODI series with England with selectors questioning his attitude and fitness.
But Mathews has reacted in impressive fashion with three half centuries in this Test series while the rest of his teammates have failed miserably with the bat. He looked set for a match-winning century with the second Test in the balance before Moeen had him trapped lbw. It would have been an emphatic point well made for a player who has put through the wringer by those in charge of the national side. "My stats will speak on behalf of me," Mathews said.
Tide turns as Root grows into captain's role
The pressure was well and truly on Root going into this series. Without an away win as captain and struggling for runs after a disastrous tour of Australia and New Zealand, where England lost five out of seven Tests, Sri Lanka looked a tough destination to restore confidence. But restore confidence he has and England have won all of the key moments over the two Tests.
Root's magnificent 124 on Day 3 in Pallekele, with the match firmly in the balance, tipped the match in England's favour. The Yorkshireman said afterwards that his 15th Test century was one of his finest and put England on their way to their first series win in Sri Lanka since 2001.