It’s 2016. Joe Root is batting against Pakistan at Lord’s. The score is 114 for one. The runs are flowing. Everything works. Yasir Shah strays on to his pads and Root lap‑sweeps for four. The crowd purrs appreciatively. For Root, at this moment, Test cricket feels like the easiest game in the world. The next ball is tossed up invitingly outside off stump. “That’s 50,” Root thinks to himself, a split second before launching into a slog-sweep that flies off the top edge and is caught at midwicket.
It’s 2021. Root is batting against India at Chennai. The score is 433 for four. The runs are flowing. Everything works. Ravi Ashwin flights the ball on a length and Root deposits him into the empty concourse for six. There is no crowd, no roar: no sound at all, in fact, bar the distant ripple of applause from his teammates in the dressing room. And this is how Root first became aware of the fact that he had reached his double-century.
The story of England’s first two days in Chennai, and their highest total in India for 35 years, is thus essentially the story of one man, and how he finally learned to disappear. Root may have been present in a strictly corporeal sense, but by the same token he hasn’t really been there at all. He’s been somewhere else entirely, playing an entirely different game: one in which trifling issues – the score, the bowler, the day, the month and possibly even the year – faded into irrelevance.
Can this team bat big? This was the question pursuing England on day two, even after their stirring efforts on day one. And by “big”, we mean the sort of total that turns bowlers into husks and gets former pros in the media tutting about the flatness of Test pitches.
Too often in recent years England have hewed and sweated their way to decent-looking totals that still give the opposition a sniff. Four times in the space of a year – between Mumbai 2016 and Perth 2017 – England hit 400 and still lost.
Here, by contrast, there was no mercy: just a relentless thirst for runs and time that has been all too rare from Root’s England, and often from Root himself. Having been buttressed by Dom Sibley on day one, now Root took a back seat to the boldness of Ben Stokes. After he went, Ollie Pope arrived with his busy, imaginative rotation of the strike. Then came Jos Buttler, feasting on the bad deliveries while still looking to minimise risk.
The radical thing about all this: every batsman addressed their task with a bespoke plan tailored to their own natural game. So often under Trevor Bayliss, England felt like a team trying to mould themselves into a uniform style with a uniform approach. It certainly worked in white-ball cricket, where the outcomes are more finite and controllable. But in the lawless jungle of Test cricket, where the time hangs heavy and no one approach can ever fit all situations, it often ended in catastrophe.
Rewiring the culture of English Test batting has not been an overnight job. For a start, it required a settled top three capable of batting time. But it has also required the senior players to set an example, and here lies the true value of Root’s renewed hunger.
For most of his career, Root the batsman has essentially been a struggle between presence and absence, a dichotomy sharpened by his early ascent to the captaincy. Test batting demands an undiluted single-mindedness: the ability to pull down the shutters and refuse the outside world, to switch on and switch off. Test captaincy, by contrast, demands unstinting alertness and the ability to read and empathise with 10 other players. As a batsman, you simply play the game: as a captain, you’re always trying to stay ahead of it.
Going into this series, Root spoke about becoming more “selfish” as a batsman: blocking out the noise, feeding his own personal hunger. Perhaps it is no coincidence that having gone three years under his captaincy without passing 500, England have now done it twice in four Tests. Perhaps in order to master the world again, first Root had to master himself.