Sport

Joe Root keeps defying convention as England turn Test cricket on its head

You won’t win Test matches playing like that. You can’t walk down the wicket and hit Mohammed Shami through midwicket, not in his first over. And you shouldn’t try to reverse-scoop Shardul Thakur for six either, even if you are on 120 at the time. Don’t get caught at mid-off the very next ball after you’ve been dropped there, especially when you’re the captain and your team are 267 runs behind. You ought not to have three slips in for Rishabh Pant when he’s 100 not out and running away with the game. You won’t beat India if you’re 132 runs behind after your first innings.

And, while you might try, you’re not going to chase 378 on the fifth day, not on this pitch, not against this attack.

You could hear this sort of talk around Edgbaston all week, in the grandstands, and on the TVs, coming through the little earpieces people wear so they can follow the radio commentary. You could read it in the papers, too.

In the past month England made 277, 299, and 296 to win in the fourth innings of three successive Tests, and did it playing a style of cricket which scotched a lot of those same old ideas. But after 145 years of Test cricket our notions about the way it is supposed to be played are so deeply ingrained that, just four days after the last of those games was over, we ended up falling back into the same old thinking.

And with good reason. England had played 1,051 Tests before this one. They’d made more than 325 to win in the fourth innings in exactly two of them.

The first time it happened, at Melbourne in 1928, the innings was spread over three days’ play, Herbert Sutcliffe batted for six‑and‑a‑half hours, and they still had to weather a late collapse which meant they only had three wickets left at the end of the match. In the other, at Headingley in 2019, Ben Stokes played one of the most superheroic innings in the history of cricket, and he still needed the No 11 to bat out the final hour with him to finish off a one-wicket victory.

Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow know all this too, better than anyone. Born and raised in Yorkshire cricket, they have been steeped in this way of thinking about the right and proper way to play since they were batting together for the county’s under‑12 team at Ampleforth in 2002 (back then Root was playing a couple of years above his age because his coaches knew he was so good). They could give you chapter and verse on the strictures of Test cricket. Root admitted after his innings here that there’s a little voice in his head saying the very same sort of stuff the rest of us were thinking.

England’s Joe Root celebrates reaching his century at Edgbaston.
England’s Joe Root celebrates reaching his century at Edgbaston. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

“The Yorkshireman inside of me is still there saying dig in and play straight,” Root said. “It’s just now there’s the captain on my other shoulder saying ‘be a rock star’ so it feel like it’s a fight between the two of them sometimes.” No prizes for guessing which of them is winning out.

Because Stokes doesn’t seem to believe in any of this. He doesn’t want to do things simply because that’s how they’ve always been done. He has stopped imposing mandatory nets on the players, and so long as they feel they’re ready by the start of play he’s happy if they skip their warm‑ups. He has no time for the immemorial rule that the best way to control the game is by batting first, and doesn’t even talk about fielding first, but says instead that he has decided to “chase” in games where he has won the toss.

At Edgbaston England chased more than they ever had done before, and did it with bewildering ease. Have two English batters ever batted better than Bairstow and Root have done so far this summer? They turned the fourth innings here into a jaunt, played so superbly well that they made the extraordinary ordinary, the climax anti-climactic.

Bairstow is batting with such belligerence that Root says, in all sincerity, that it is intimidating to stand at the non-striker’s end. “There was one today where if it was hit at me I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the way.” Imagine how the bowlers feel.

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There will come a time, sooner or later, when England do slip up, a match when they don’t get to bat last, or when the opposition does grind out a score beyond their reach in the third innings, where one of those early lbw appeals Root survived here is given, or one of those edges off the bottom of Bairstow’s bat flies into his leg stump rather by it. The only thing as predictable as the I‑told‑you‑so’s that will follow when it happens is the way Stokes will reply to them.

When he brought up his hundred, Root pulled off his glove and cocked his little finger at his teammates, a nod to Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis biopic, and the story of his famous gig at Jacksonville in 1956 when a local judge had threatened to arrest him for “impairing the morality of minors” if he waggled his hips on stage. So Elvis waggled his finger instead. “There’s a lot of people saying a lot of things,” Elvis says in Lurhmann’s version of the story, “but in the end, you’ve got to listen to yourself.” Or failing that, to your captain.

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