In his first Test without the captain’s armband, Joe Root gave England a glimpse of a bold new era, writes Ben Jones.
Well, that was all rather easier than expected. As England fans arrived into North London this morning, under grey skies illuminated by floodlights, the pitch protected by covers, they would have been anticipating a scrap. Yet just over an hour after the first ball was bowled, those same fans were applauding a five wicket-win, something far closer to a procession than anybody could have anticipated. It was a victory reached in so few overs that Lord’s were forced to refund the cost of tickets, though you doubt any of those braving the misle felt even faintly short changed.
In keeping with the theme of the week, this was less a scrap, than a coronation; Joe Root’s 115* (170), his first century in the fourth innings of a Test, was one of his finest. Arriving at the crease with England 32-2, firmly behind in a sizeable chase against a world class attack, Root delivered an innings of recognisable class, moving the side into a winning position overnight before finishing the job off this morning, alongside a resolute supporting role from Ben Foakes.
In this high-pressure, high-stakes situation, it was the fluency of Root’s scoring which stood out. The clarity of thought. Whatever New Zealand threw at him, he managed to find regular, low risk scoring options, moving along at 4.8rpo against full balls, 4.9rpo against short balls, and even 3.8rpo against classical good lengths. Only a handful of deliveries drew no stroke. Often when we say a player “has all the shots”, it’s code for a generally loose mindset, or a white ball preference, but for Root it’s true in a far more methodical manner. There are balls that will get him out, like anyone, but at his best it’s almost impossible to tie him down.
It was a deft, artful brand of intent on show though. 56% of Root’s runs came behind the wicket, the fifth most for any of his centuries, and it reflected a willingness to respond and react to conditions which, until this final morning, were tough and filled with sideways movement. It was not a game for full blooded drives down the ground. It was a time for directing the ball into the gaps, for manoeuvring.
This knock was barely about boundaries. Before the flurry of fours in the last knockings when the game was won, Root was working with a very low boundary percentage, hitting only around 5% of balls to the rope. This wasn’t about drives and pulls and glamour and bravado, but about control and guile; the Kiwi attack was getting pickpocketed, not mugged.
That attack wasn’t doing a huge amount wrong however. New Zealand hammered the channel outside off stump, that nightmare zone where Australia were merciless against him in the winter just gone. Only a fraction fewer than half of the deliveries they bowled were on a good line and length, and while the decision to change a softening ball which still seemed to be offering movement reduced the effectiveness of that accuracy, the accuracy still remained. The flawed decision to select Ajaz Patel called to mind India’s inclusion of two spinners at Lord’s in 2018, but in terms of how the seamers themselves performed against Root, there was little to criticise.
Before this match, Root’s highest score in a fourth innings was at Adelaide Oval 2013, an unbeaten 87 on his first trip down under. Yet last night, as Root walked off, it was a Test at that same ground four years later which came to mind. On that occasion, Root found himself 67 not out overnight as the game entered its final day, the key wicket in a doable if improbable chase. It felt like a huge opportunity for Root to step up and deliver an iconic performance, an innings to gild his reputation, to swell his legacy. He was dismissed on Day 5 without adding to his score, and England crumbled.
Fourth innings tons are badges of honour, a demonstration of being able to tough it out with conditions worsening and the game on the line. Root’s failure to convert in Adelaide came early on in a lengthy run of poor form, a run which saw just one century in 15 matches. It was a time when many worried that his vast, sprawling potential was going to go unfulfilled. It felt cruelly appropriate that, after a wonderful start to his Test career, Root may fail to convert.
Well, these last 18 months have removed those worries once and for all. Ongoing issues in Australia aside, Root has dominated all before him. He’s filled in the gaps on his CV, and his application to enter the pantheon of all-time great batters is looking stronger than ever.
And yet we have to hope there’s more to come. On a day of serendipity, as Root ran two to bring up his century he also skipped past another landmark, passing 10,000 career runs in Test cricket. As noted by Sky Cricket statistician Benedict Bermange, Root reached 10k runs at exactly the same age – to the day – as Alastair Cook. At the time of Cook’s own milestone, pundit Ian Botham remarked: “He’s 31, he’s got lots of time to go yet – four years or maybe five, I’d suggest, if he keeps himself fit. In five years, he could be chasing Sachin. Who knows?”
As it was, Cook had resigned the captaincy before the end of the year, and retired from Tests altogether within 2 ½ years. English cricket has done rather well in keeping their bowling greats on the park well beyond their natural lifespan, but be it Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott or even Ian Bell, they have had far less success with their batters. Such is the nature of the schedule, of the economic pressure that accompanies their privilege and opportunity, England’s finest tend to burn out rather than fade away.
Right now, we are in peak-Root. He has reached levels that only the very best in the history of the game can match, and now, it’s simply a question of how long this peak lasts. But as we stand it’s a peak so high – whisper it – that the highest of the lot is coming into view.