Sunday, 15 June 2014

Joe Root: nothing new to report

It would be unfair to start dumping on a player who has come through a desperate winter to make a Test match double hundred, but equally, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that the winter was simply an aberration. Joe Root's innings has yet to be contextualised by the match, the series, the summer and the future in the way that his 180 against Australia was last year. Describing his 200 not out as 'stunning' and 'masterly' as it has been on television is more a symptom of commentators reaching for empty adjectives that a genuine attempt to assess Root's innings or where he stands as a Test match batsman.

It was instead an innings that played into the enigma of his batting. It was most impressive in its opening passage, played when England were within sight of difficulties that, given the parlous state of their cricket, could have caused significant image problems. Yet at the start of the second day, when a seam bowling attack best categorised as of county div 1 standard went all Bodyline for half an hour or so, the deep-set problems in his technique came running back out. As all of cricket knows, Root can be forced back into his crease and squared up, and he'll waft his bat with his weight and body travelling in opposite directions. Sri Lanka's attack simply lacked the pace to exploit the errors. They are still there, waiting, like the troll under the bridge, for better men.

Root has his first thousand runs in Test cricket at an average of 44, a return that suggests that his seamless upward climb from Boy Wonder to star player is still moving frictionlessly on, and yet he has made a third of those runs in two innings, and both at Lord's.

Part of his problem has been a pervading feeling from within the England set-up that Root had been annointed as a player long before his debut. It's built a sort of gentle resentment that might not be there had he been presented in a different light. The better we're told he is, the less good he seems.

England's batsmen essentially have a free pass this summer against Sri Lanka and India if they care to take it up. The wider narrative will be the reconstruction of the bowling, and how regularly they can take twenty wickets without Graeme Swann. Root certainly looks more comfortable at five than anywhere else he has batted, and it's a position that could in time allow him to boss the second half of the order in a way that Steve Waugh or Michael Hussey used to for Australia, when they looked at their line-up as having two cracks at a big score, the top order breaking the bowlers and then that second unit of players piling them on.

Alastair Cook grew up in an England side that made monolithic scores and used them to grind opponents down. On the slim evidence of one innings at Lord's he still likes the idea. It will be interesting to see whether the extra hour or so he batted to let Root get to 200 has any impact on the final outcome if England are racing to take wickets in the last session of the match.

The ultimate meaning of Root's innings may be as simple as a setting aside of the winter horrors. Cricket felt quiet and normal again while he was batting, and that will be of solace to a nervy captain. But it was a knock that told us nothing more than we already knew.


Liam Cromar said...

Fair points, Jon, and a useful counterbalance to the praise that tends to be lavished on every Test century.

That being said, no hundred, let along double hundred, is easy, and hundreds in any form have been scarce for England of late. Since the Australia tour, we've had just 5, and Root has been responsible for two of them. In the first, he battled a broken thumb to force England to a competitive and series-winning total; in the second, he kept his focus on an admittedly slow Lord's pitch, to rebuild a wobbling England innings.

With that in mind, I'd say this double ton was reflective more of his character than of his talent. Technical difficulties persist - most young players quickly have their weaknesses found out on the big stage - so we'll have to wait to see whether he can address them in time for the Australians in 2015.

Finally, on a side point, in relation to your comment on Cook letting Root get to his milestone at the expense of time in the game: in this instance, I'm with Cook. In fact, I'd probably have let the scoreboard hit 600, just for the psychological advantage, forcing Sri Lanka into the position of needing over 400 just to make England bat again. I would consider a different view in the second innings, when the sands are clearly running out and a target is required.

As the game currently stands, though, with England 126-6, leaving sufficient time for a result is probably the least of Cook's worries!

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