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Joe Root’s Nottingham Masterclass

Ben Jones analyses perhaps the England captain’s best Test century.

Joe Root is arguably England’s greatest ever Test batsman. In a bowling friendly era, in a bowling friendly country, where bowlers don’t smoke and rest days feel as anachronistic as pledging allegiance to the queen before you take the field, he’s averaging 50. He is as skilled and valuable as anyone around the world. Any yet, one legitimate criticism against him is that, for all his brilliance, he doesn’t give you moments.

His finest innings are ones of quality, not ones of watercooler currency. Root doesn’t really make “moment” innings. Jo’burg, maybe. Trent Bridge 2015, maaaaybe. He has a few in other formats: SA in the T20, the bat-drop ton. But the last time he made a ton at home was in Alastair Cook’s last game, an innings that couldn’t have been more overshadowed if it tried, and that rather sums it up. Root is a star who generally shines in the shadow of others.

Today, for once, he took centre stage. Today, he reeled off a century which, given the situation he was faced with, stands as one of the best played by an Englishman in last decade.

In his first 30 balls, he played 23% false shots; in the next 30, it was 21%. There was a clear assertiveness – and a need to score – which justified the risk, but it was risk nonetheless. England were 50 runs behind when he walked to the crease, and defending alone was not enough. A chance dropped inches short in the cordon, balls too straight were missed in an attempt to squirt to third man. This was Root playing with his life, and loving every minute of it. 

Faced with the need to be aggressive, to be both of the two totems that have generally stood alongside him – Ben Stokes, and Alastair Cook – Root responded. He took that risk as a necessary evil and attacked a third of the balls bowled to him. He got down on one knee, driving; he dabbed, he swept, he cut; when faced with a choice, he took the attacking option. He watched the Indian lead fall, and then the English lead swell. He attacked the full balls, the sucker deliveries designed to grab his wicket, and took them for 5rpo. He stared the danger down and took it for all it was worth.

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In many ways, for all the brilliance of Root’s career, today was a glimpse of the No.5 he could have been in a better side. Busy, immaculate against spin, with a range of strokes unmatched by most orthodox red ball batsmen, Root’s spirit is that of the dashing counter-attacker backed by substance, and a robust technique. That he broke through as an opener still feels like an odd quirk for a player so adept in those ‘middle overs’, gliding the ball around the field.

He formed a great partnership of 89 with Dom Sibley, during which Sibley made 12 (82), and Root 71 (92). The much-famed pressure which the opener puts on his partner – of course, no doubt more than the pressure placed on a middle order by being 30-3 – didn’t seem to affect Root. Indeed, his celebrations when Sibley was given out LBW and overturned on review suggests that he relished the pressure of batting with the opener who has gets out less frequently than any Englishman at home this century.

Sarcasm aside, the match situation demanded an intervention from England’s best player, but even removed from that context, these were some of Root’s best ever runs. The Expected Average of the deliveries he faced, 28.6, was the 5th lowest for any of his Test centuries. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Mohammed Siraj, plus Ravindra Jadeja, is one of the finest four-man attacks Root will have faced, and each bowled well.

In terms of his scoring areas, Root payed remarkably similarly to KL Rahul during his first innings knock. By ‘going with’ the swing, Root was able to negate the lateral movement, scoring heavily through point and rarely elsewhere. It was ironic that, having scored fewer runs through the classical V than he ever had previously on route to his century, Root reached his landmark with an elegant, timed straight drive.

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If it felt like Root was taking on the burden of England’s run scoring, it was a familiar burden. 29% of England’s runs this year have been from Root. That’s the seventh most for any England player ever in a calendar year, and the most for anyone in the post-war era. In an age when nobody can match his quality with the bat, Root is standing up and giving England everything he has.

And yet, he seemed to be loving it. There was a charisma to his innings, a swagger, that we associated with ‘peak’ Root in 2014-2015, but have rarely seen since. Pinned just outside the line by Shardul Thakur on 97, Root actually encouraged Kohli to review the Not Out decision. This was cocksure, arrogant Root, at his best. It was a joy to watch.

The record for most Test runs in a calendar year is Mohammed Yousuf’s 1788. For Root to pass that, he needs another 725 runs before the end of 2021 – provided no injuries, that’s about 104 runs-per-Test, a total which while a challenge, is not unmanageable. It was a record which many identified as a possibility for Root at the start of the year, after he scored 684 runs in his first three Tests against Sri Lanka and India. It is a record which, should he continue to bat with the tenacity and control he’s managed this year, he should have well within his sights.

While the schedule has given him a significant tailwind on that record, he is in remarkably good nick regardless. In the last decade, only two other Englishmen (Cook in 2012 and Moeen in 2016) have managed to accrue four centuries in a calendar year. While it isn’t out of the question Root failures to make another ton before 2021 is out, if he did manage another it would put him in an even more exclusive club; only six Englishmen have ever made five tons in a calendar year (Bell 2011, Cook 2010, Pietersen 2008, Amiss 1974, Compton 1947, Vaughan 2002 – the latter two making six). These landmarks don’t matter in the broader scheme of things, but huge runs of form do affect a players legacy. Cook’s decade of consistency feels grander in scope because of that 2010/2011 run, just like Vaughan in 2002, or KP in 2008. These flurries seal reputations, and make memories.

Ultimately, Root’s century will be defined by how England’s bowlers go. Bring it home from here, and it’s a ton which grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat against world class opposition. If not, it’s just a curate’s egg, which those in the know will respect and trumpet, but the general fan will ignore. 

Root has never made a Test ton in a losing game. The fact that his finest may well be the one to break that duck? Just another strand in cricket’s great ironic tapestry, and the sort of raging against the dying of the light that fans, commentators, and memories love.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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