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Joe Root’s Chennai Century

Ben Jones analyses the England captain’s centenary ton.

Joe Root is in the form of his life. 

Things started cautiously. England had found themselves in a tidy position towards the end of the first session, 63-0 and moving along pleasantly, before two quick wickets reduced them to 63-2. The situation was tense; everyone watching aware that this was a flat surface where 450 could be severely under par, and a scrap to 350 could be irredeemable.

For all that India’s attack was dominated numerically by spinners, Virat Kohli having opted for both Washington Sundar and Shahbaz Nadeem in support of Ravichandran Ashwin, the initial challenge for Root was to negotiate the returning Ishant Sharma. The last time Root faced Ishant, in 2018, he was dismissed by a booming inswinger (a terrifying 3.54 degrees of movement) that pinned him LBW. He could easily have fallen similarly today, with Ishant getting the ball reversing beautifully in the early part of the Afternoon Session, and the ball did find its target – but it was just going down. A narrow escape.

For England, desperately in need of runs on the board, nothing more could go wrong – and Root batted like it. After 50 balls he had scored only 11 runs, the fewest runs he’d ever made at that stage of an innings in Asia. No boundaries, and only two attacking strokes, was caution appropriate to what lay before him.

It was from that point on that the tone of Root’s innings began to be set. We have explained in great depth what makes Root such a brilliant player of spin in a previous post, and we won’t retread old ground. But the key principles – getting fully to the pitch, or all the way back, and thus avoiding the Danger Zone – were all there to be seen, but arguably the most recognisable element of his method rather took its time.

Root’s sweep shot is a modern classic. 325 runs per dismissal for Root’s sweep shot since the start of the 2018 Sri Lanka tour, making it the most effective shot in Test cricket. Part of the reason that his record is that good, is that he doesn’t play it compulsively. 

The first 28 balls of spin that Root faced were from Ashwin and Nadeem, the frontline spinners in India’s attack, and Root didn’t play a single sweep shot. After all the fanfare of his approach in Sri Lanka, where Root played more sweeps (128) than we have seen since 2006 when the data was first recorded, he didn’t come out all guns blazing. He sat back, both literally and figuratively, and let the situation unfold. 

It was only when Washington Sundar came on that Root started sweeping, doing so to four of the first 15 balls the Indian bowled. The all-rounder performed superbly in Brisbane in a Test which will live long in the memory, but his FC pedigree is in question, and Root pounced.

Having warmed up, Root began to eye the other spinners. His first sweep against Ashwin, from his 88th ball, came against a particularly straight delivery. England’s captain has spoken about how he likes to sweep on line, rather than length, and we can see this across his career. Rather than trying to force himself and his game onto a bowler as skilled as Ashwin, Root waited for the slight error, and punished it. 

Soon, the stroke began to dominate proceedings. The laps, the hard-sweeps, the reverse, they all came out, 17 in total across a day where England moved into a commanding position. Only three innings have seen Root sweep more regularly, and all three have been in Sri Lanka, where both conditions and opposition have been favourable. This was, in many ways, the best vindication of his signature shot. For now.

There were the faintest moments of malfunction. A top edged sweep of Nadeem landed hazardously close to two men out on the legside, but the nerves were gone as soon as the ball landed; another ball was cracked for four with a hard, low sweep later that over. One orthodox straight drive from a marginally overpitched Washington delivery flew to the boundary, accompanied by a bewildered stare from the off spinner. 

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It wasn’t until the 121st ball Root faced that we saw him drive the quicks. A full blooded yet elegant cover drive off Jasprit Bumrah was a flavour of Root-in-England, a gentle contrast to the cross-batted work which had defined the knock. From his 174th, he unleashed it again, this time off Ishant, that post-lunch lateral movement having vanished. These strokes are usually the backbone of a Root innings, particularly at home, and yet today in Chennai they were a rarity; not a single run was scored in the V off Root’s bat. This wasn’t a case of the drive being too dangerous to play, but rather because the associated risk just wasn’t needed. If Root didn’t give them that, India had nothing.

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His acceleration was immaculate. Just 17 runs from the first 60 balls Root faced was then turned into 111 from the next 137, flying along having got up to speed. His innings had begun with the conservative refusal to sweep Indian’s premier spinner, but it ended with Root, 192 balls into his knock and as secure as he’d ever be, slog-sweeping Ashwin into the empty stands for six. In the Evening Session he was attacking 34% of his deliveries, well above the Test average of 25% and yet matching it with just 12% false shots. Attacking with control, the privilege earned by a well-set, elite batsman. 

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He got some help from the pitch, without a doubt. This was a very flat surface in Chennai with little to help either seamers or spinners. The last time an away side edged or missed the ball less on Day 1 of a Test in India was 2011, and responsibility for that cannot entirely fall with England’s batsmen. This is a tough pitch to bowl on and while England have already gone some way to avoiding defeat, they have much longer to travel before a victory feels possible.

Yet part of the reason Root suffers by comparison to the other members of the Big Four is that, compared to the others, he plays on these surfaces quite rarely. Conversion rates in England are lower because the ball swings for longer; the opportunity to make big runs once you get set is always there, but it is hard. The absolute elite can do it, but drop below that and it’s tough. Root has earned the right to let loose on a road.

His partnership with Dom Sibley brought exactly 200 runs, England’s highest partnership in a Test in India since Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott in 2012. Sibley’s role shouldn’t go underestimated. He was the epitome of control, playing just 7.7% false shots across the day – the last time a visiting batsman faced this many balls in India, with a lower false shot percentage, was Bell himself in 2012. The last time a visiting batsmen faced more deliveries in a day in India was February 2010, when Hashim Amla faced 314 balls in Kolkata. While Sibley lacks the aesthetic qualities of either Bell or Amla, the substance of this innings speaks for itself; old-fashioned soaking up pressure, putting miles in bowlers legs, pushing the game deep. Root was on another level, but Sibley’s obstinance was every bit as valuable.

And in losing Sibley from the final ball of the day, to a vicious yorker from Bumrah, Root’s task is made even clearer. If England are going to post the monster score they’ll need to compete on this sort of surface, then a century won’t do – he needs to go big. In that sense, the first innings of the series is a microcosm of Root’s series as a whole. Good isn’t good enough. He needs to be great. 

The exciting thing for his England teammates, and the England fans back home, is that for the first time in a while, greatness looks well within his grasp.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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