England built a lead of 278 runs on Day 3 in Pallekele as their captain played one of his best ever innings. Patrick Noone looks how Joe Root and a love affair with the sweep shot reclaimed the initiative for the visitors.
It was said that the Galle Test was Joe Root’s finest as England captain. That remains the case, at least until he follows that victory up with another win in Pallekele, but today was surely his best day since receiving the reins from Alastair Cook last year. A punchy century, one of the best of his career, helped England to a lead of 278 before a storm curtailed the day’s play.
The theme of the day was the sweep shot, both the conventional and the reverse. England played 81 in total, the most they’ve ever played in a Tests innings and two short of the record tally in Tests since 2006, when shot-type data was first collected. It was a clear risk and reward strategy from the visitors as, despite the obvious effectiveness of the stroke with 110 runs being added, seven England batsmen were dismissed playing it.
England were refreshingly attacking throughout the day – only 14 balls have been left in the entire innings and the run rate of 4.26 is the best they’ve managed in the third innings of a Test in Asia since 2003. None came to embody both the strategies of both frequent sweeping and high scoring than the captain.
Root is one of those batsmen about whom it is often said that they make batting look simple. That was certainly the case today as runs flowed freely from his bat and one could be forgiven for thinking that these were batting friendly conditions, such was the ease with which Root went about his business. In reality, this was a pitch that was offering Sri Lanka’s spinners 4.3° of turn, on average while Root was at the crease. Of his previous hundreds, the pitch with the next highest amount of deviation upon which he’s made a ton was the 3.1° that India found in Rajkot.
These were conditions unlike Root has ever succeeded in to this extent before, yet he was in total control. He attacked 40% of the balls he faced, a higher percentage than all bar two of his previous hundreds, yet he was doing this from a point where England were in something of a precarious position. With the visitors only 33 runs ahead when he came to the crease and with more than two days left in the match, Root would have been within his rights to work the ball around, build a platform and see where they were at lunch.
But instead, just as Jos Buttler had done in the first innings, Root ascertained that attack was the best form of defence and that sweeping or reverse sweeping was the way to play the spinners on this track. Root played 28 sweeps and nine reverse sweeps in total and only five of those 37 balls were dots, a reflection of the controlled intent that he displayed throughout, only leaving three of the 146 balls he faced.
Root has played many fine innings for England and he will doubtless play many more. But it is innings such as the one today, in tough conditions away from home and with the game in the balance that are the most memorable in a player’s career. In recent years, Root has been somewhat arbitrarily placed in a quartet alongside Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. Each of those three has produced similar innings of class, substance and authority that somehow stick in the mind longer than many of their other centuries.
Whether it’s Williamson’s debut hundred in Ahmedabad, Smith’s match-winning ton in Pune or Kohli’s score-settling knock at Edgbaston, each have shown themselves to be capable of delivering the kind of ‘chips are down’ innings that defines the careers of great players. Root has already done enough to be talked about in those terms and now he can look back on an innings that will likely be talked about for many years to come.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.