Wednesday, September 22, 2021

England v India: Joe Root century shows why he is England’s Atlas

Michael Vaughan once had the partner of a player knock on his hotel room door to complain about the quality of wine served to wives and girlfriends. On tour in New Zealand, Michael Atherton had a 6ft shark dumped into his bed by Phil Tufnell and Alan Mullally.

At the other end of the scale, Nasser Hussain’s team were sent deaths threats by the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe, while Kevin Pietersen led England back to India only weeks after gunmen carried out a deadly attack in Mumbai.

When Joe Root calls time on a reign that is likely to see him lead England in more Tests than any other man, he might take a moment to reflect on all the obstacles that have been put in his way.

The Bristol affair that prevented Ben Stokes from taking part in the 2017-18 Ashes tour. The focus on England’s white-ball team to the detriment of the Test side. James Anderson bowling only four overs in what is likely to be Root’s only home Ashes series as skipper.

The pressure of the Covid-induced bubble environment. Rest and rotation. Ollie Robinson’s tweets. The doubt over arrangements for the upcoming Ashes. Stokes’ indefinite break from the game. Jofra Archer’s elbow.

All this while being the only class act in a batting line-up that shows all the solidity of a well-dunked biscuit.

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In Greek mythology, Atlas’ punishment for siding with the Titans in the war against the Olympians was to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity.

Root must wonder which cricketing God he was wronged to have been asked to the carry an England team looking to the future with all the optimism of a turkey that has just received its first Christmas card.

“There’s been a lot to handle, not just for me, but for the whole squad,” said Root after his superb century against India in the first Test on Saturday. “You have to look at each situation and try to find a solution.

“You can let it wear you down, think it’s bad luck and things keep spiralling, but ultimately it doesn’t change anything.

“I feel like I’m doing the best I possibly can.”

It’s hard to disagree. On a personal level at least, he is thriving.

During the course of his magnificent 109 at Trent Bridge – an innings brimming with so much class it would make James Bond think he has to buck his ideas up – Root passed 1,000 Test runs for the year. No other England player has more than 354.

Root’s average in 2021, 59.11, is his best in a calendar year since 2015. He has scored 27% of England’s runs since January and 173 of their runs in this match.

There were whispers before this Test that all was not well with Root or the England camp – hardly surprising when you consider Stokes’ shock announcement and the distraction of the Ashes uncertainty. Those close to Root said he had not been himself.

The captain chose to fulfil his pre-match media commitments two days before the game, rather than the usual one, in order to spend more time focusing on his preparation.

If he continues to bat like this, he is well within his rights to deliver his pre-match message via carrier pigeon.

When Root arrived at the crease on day four – the crowd growling his name before he skipped down the pavilion steps – England were 49 behind and in danger of being beaten with a day to spare.

By the time he left, edging Jasprit Bumrah behind in the first over with the second new ball, he had dragged his side to a position from which they could pull off an unlikely victory.

Root began with three picture-perfect three cover drives and moved into authoritative hooks and deft late cuts. In between he hurried between the wickets as if his life depended on it.

He batted with a fluency that has been beyond every other batsman in the match and, at times, was coaching his partner as he went.

Dom Sibley got an angry look after a mix-up that almost brought a run-out and a thumbs-up for little more than leaving a ball that was wide of the off stump. When Sibley was given out lbw, Root persuaded him to review, then punched the air when the decision came back in England’s favour.

Root chatted to umpire Richard Kettleborough, his fellow Sheffield Collegiate CC old boy. He wore a smile throughout, even as Sibley, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler found ways to get themselves out. When India burned their final review on a speculative lbw shout with Root on 97, he was almost in hysterics.

“This morning I said to myself and the group to remember what’s fun about cricket,” said Root.

“As batters, it’s scoring runs. It can be tough sometimes but it’s fun. You have to look to enjoy that moment and make the most of it.”

The sweet on-drive that took him to three figures sparked long and animated celebrations. Both arms raised, a punch of the air, waving the bat towards wife Carrie.

As Root turned to the Yu Energy Stand, who had done so much to chastise India captain Virat Kohli, he beat the Three Lions badge on his chest. The response was for a group of Freddie Mercurys to lead a chorus of Don’t Stop Me Now.

“I was probably a little bit too excited,” he said. “I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It was an opportunity to say thank you to everyone in the ground and my wife.”

Root was livid at his dismissal, swiping his bat over the stumps as the ball nestled into the gloves of Rishabh Pant. Still, as Root departed, he was able to show his blade and helmet to the crowd, who in turn acknowledged they had seen a wonderful knock.

“We have just witnessed one of the great innings of all time,” said former England captain Michael Vaughan.

“The position Joe Root came out in, the responsibility on him and he’s done that. He’s delivered England from a difficult position into a chance of winning.

“I don’t remember him making a single mistake. His cover drives and late cuts were immaculate.”

Almost nine years ago to the day, on Super Saturday in the London Olympics, Pietersen made an audacious 149 against a loaded South Africa attack. It was one of the best ever by an England batsman.

After his Headingley pyrotechnics, Pietersen suggested that he might never play international cricket again because it was “tough being me” in the England dressing room.

There are times when it must be tough being Joe Root, but the England dressing room would be in a much tougher place without him.

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