After Joe Root wandered back in at Lord’s two Saturdays ago on 180 not out, the Wisden Cricket Monthly editor, Phil Walker, described him as “strumming” his second century of the series. When Root went to three in a row at Headingley the next Friday, he was absolutely strumming them. England’s captain has never looked as relaxed; all smiles and easy drives, no need to launch at the bowling, just serenely nodding it away, closing his eyes here and there for an especially enjoyable chord. This was batting to a rhythm section led by Charlie Watts.
Since his two huge innings in Sri Lanka in January, cricket badgers have been tracking Root as a chance to score the most Test runs ever in a year. The statistical Everest to climb is Mohammad Yousuf’s tally of 1,788, set in 2006. Root has 1,398 this year with a possible five matches to come. But as Leeds unfolded, it was special to see the list of names that Root passed along the way.
Before that innings, he was 41st all time for runs in a year. In the course of scoring 121 runs that afternoon, Root climbed that list to 17th. Scanning past such a list tends to be abstract, a flash of numbers and names. Great stories are reduced to entries, signposts rather than artworks. To understand Root’s achievement more fully, it was worth pausing along the way.
The first landmark he passed was Sanath Jayasuriya’s 1997, the year when the Sri Lankan wrecking ball at the top of the order made 340 and 199 in a single series against India. He passed both Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott in 2010, the year with most of those away Ashes runs that hurt Australians in ways they still haven’t recovered from.
Past England’s previous Australian visit, when Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen in 2006 duelled before Ponting’s team drove to a whitewash. Before that, Pietersen had partied against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while Ponting made twin tons twice in a couple of months.
Root passed his contemporaries. Steve Smith’s truly great 2017, after three centuries in India and two to win the Ashes. Virat Kohli’s 2018 tour de force, a whisker from twin tons in Nottingham, centuries in Centurion, Birmingham, and Perth. Root passed himself, his tally from 2015.
Past the ultra-consistent 2014 of Angelo Mathews: 20 innings, only one in single figures, half of them past 50, including setting up Sri Lanka’s first series win in England. Past Sunil Gavaskar’s 1983, with tons home and away against fierce Pakistan and West Indies quicks, plus his 236 not out that for years was India’s highest score.
Past two Australians who couldn’t play spin but learned to bat in India: Matthew Hayden in 2001, when a century and a double still ended in a series loss, then Damien Martyn setting up a long-awaited win with two tons in 2004, having warmed up with two others in Muttiah Muralitharan’s backyard.
Past 2002 when Rahul Dravid made three hundreds in three innings in England, finishing with his Oval double and drawing the series, before going back to India to score a fourth on the trot. And Gundappa Viswanath in 1979, after two fifties at Edgbaston and a ton at Lord’s before piling high his plate at home.
Past Dennis Amiss in 1974, when he built 262 not out to save a Test in Kingston. In a year when he also made scores of 174, 183 and 188, Amiss spent 35 hours at the crease making five centuries. Bob Simpson stayed just as steady in 1964: he made only three hundreds but it helped that one was a triple. The draw helped win the Ashes.
Inevitably, even unfortunately, it always loops back to that trophy. It was tragicomic this year when the England coach, Chris Silverwood, described his team’s upcoming months of playing India, ranked top in the world, as “a fantastic way to prepare to go to the Ashes”. Even Australians don’t obsess about it quite that hard – when it’s not actually happening, the focus tends to be on whatever is.
But the Ashes and Root’s story unavoidably tie in. He was still introducing himself to the world during the 2013 edition, an elfin creature flashing deliveries over the cordon during an earlier score of 180. That matured into two match-winning hundreds in 2015. In contrast were his trips to Australia. By the Sydney Test of 2014 he was dropped from the team. By the Sydney Test of 2018 he was in St Vincent’s hospital.
Coming back for his third attempt later this year, he’ll be riding this run-scoring surge. Unless he pulls out a Jayasuriya innings, Root won’t challenge Yousuf’s record during the two remaining home Tests against India. If that mark is to fall, he will have to make it fall in Australia. Aside from brief trips to Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, Australia is the only other country Root has visited and never scored a century. Nine matches, eight losses.
On its own, most runs in a year doesn’t mean much. It may not mean winning, or entertaining. Players lower on the list may have made more epic contributions to more memorable results. But if Root does approach the record, it will mean one thing: that his surge has lasted into the country where he’s had least success. That he’s taken it up to bowlers who have had his measure. And if that’s the case, there’s a chance that England will also be competing in the series. What Root does has never been purely about what Root does. Right now, it’s about that other land, down there beyond his view of the horizon; the sense of something waiting.