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Joe Root’s Lord’s Century

Ben Jones looks back on another century from England’s in-form skipper.

Another week, another Joe Root masterclass. One week, Nottingham; another, London. The travelling circus that is Root’s current run of brilliant form doesn’t care about the stage it takes, or what the occasion demands. Buy a ticket to the show, and you’re going to see runs.

In this instance, the show started slowly. On the evening of Day 2, Root arrived at the crease with his side in trouble and with two wickets having fallen in two balls. He met it with control and clarity of purpose – both the immediate threat of a hat-trick and the mire in which his side had sunk – particularly compared with the frenetic nature of his Nottingham ton. Then, he played 25% false shots for his first 20 balls, but here it was just 10%. Now was a time for a clear head, and the middle of the bat.

Yet as the innings wore on, that never gave way to a callow mentality or a backwards step. Against India’s quicks, Root left just 7% of the deliveries bowled to him. Never, in the previous 10 occasions when he’s managed 100+ runs against a pace attack, has he left the ball less. Root was taking this Stokesian assertiveness to heart, absorbing it into his play in the absence of his mate and long-time teammate, and in doing so was doing a damned good impression of the perfect red ball batsman.

It’s a cliche about Root at his best, but when he’s moving smoothly he’s incredibly difficult to pin down. He scored at over 3rpo against every length India’s seamers threw at him, and was even relatively free-scoring when they kept the lines tight, rolling along at 2.7rpo against balls in the channel. Against those deliveries, he attacked 32% of the time and left just 7% of deliveries. Last summer, those figures were 27% and 19%. A step up in aggression, and a step up in control. The dream ticket.

India didn’t bowl badly to him, at all. Having spent his first 100 or so balls in the middle trying to build pressure conventionally, India moved towards shock tactics, short pitched bowling and men back. In that session, just 30% of India’s deliveries were on a traditional good line and length, a figure which had been above 50% for the entirety of the morning. Perhaps the ease with which Root was scoring against those deliveries persuaded Kohli to change tack; perhaps the lack of assistance from the pitch affected the bowlers’ confidence that a more orthodox strategy could work.

In the evening, they honed in on his stumps, another reasonably orthodox option in the rolodex of Flat Pitch Strategies. In the afternoon just 11% of deliveries bowled to Root by India’s seamers would have hit the stumps, but after the tea break that rose to a staggering 43%. As the tail came and went one by one, and the innings’ end seemed nearer, India seemed clarified in their approach, going full and straight and Root was no exception. But when a guy isn’t leaving the ball outside off, drifting onto his pads is not a concern; Root scored 29 (53) against balls from the quicks on the stumps. 

As he clipped Siraj for four through midwicket, rolling his wrists with class and awareness to beat the fielder, Root’s Test average ticked above 50. In a bowling friendly age, playing half of your Tests in a bowling-friendly country, Root’s record compares favourably with a great many of the best to play the game. It’s a quirk of cricket’s relationship with records that, were he to finish his career averaging 49.99, he’d be considered – by a casual but surprisingly large portion of fans – to be a drop below the elite, compared with if he’d averaged 50.01.

The support around him in this match was better, but Root still seems to be broadly ploughing a lone furrow. The fact that he was forced to see off not one, but two hat-trick balls across the course of his innings, feels about right in terms of the pressures placed upon him. Jonny Bairstow was much improved in his half-century and rather gave it away shortly before the new ball, but while he was at the crease Root zoomed from end to end; while they were alongside each other Root scored 50 runs but only 12 of them with boundaries. Their much vaunted relationship is borne out in the numbers. Bairstow’s replacement at the crease, Moeen Ali, alternated between fluster and flair for his useful 27 (72). Both did enough to vindicate their return from the doldrums, but not much more. 

As the sun drifted away, and the occasional crowd member followed suit, Root started to put on a show of more obvious, naked aggression. A reverse scoop shot for four over a slip cordon, an almighty slog to midwicket for the same again; it was a crowd-pleasing, but entirely deserved, an immaculate recital of Chopin followed by a shirtless ‘Thunder Road’. It was – and this is a defining feature of what we may soon call Peak Root – extremely, unabashedly fun.  

But it’s not just good-time-short-time for England’s skipper. That assertive approach has been matched with Root acquiring a taste for batting time. Across his Test career, he’s faced 300+ deliveries in a Test innings on seven occasions, but four of them have been in 2021. Suddenly, a man renowned – in a genuinely historic context – for getting in and getting out, is booking himself in for the long haul. No player in Test history has managed to do it more often in a year of cricket. According to our Expected Wickets model, had the average Test batsman faced the deliveries Root did, they would have recorded a score of 157-6. The fact that Root remained undismissed across those deliveries is already a vast achievement, but the fact that he also outstripped his xRuns nudges it into the very top tier. 

Root spent a quite remarkable 533 minutes at the crease. This century, the only England batsman to collect a not out and bat longer is Alastair Cook. He is an extraordinary run of form and is making the most of it – batting records tend to be written in red ink. If Root has an eye on the history books as well as the result of any given match, he’s going about it the right way.

Conditions were kind to England. PitchViz – which uses ball tracking data to assess conditions – ranks batting difficulty out of 10, with higher being harder. On Day 1 it was 6.3, on Day 2 it was 5.6, and today it was 4.8. There is no question that England’s batsmen have had the best of conditions, and have been at the crease when the surface has been placid, the clouds white and high, and everything peachy. But it’s fair to consider that Root did choose to bowl at the toss, and while we may have focused on the bowlers’ performance under grey skies, Lord’s flattening out is not a new phenomenon. It is not out of the question that Root made that cool with bat in mind, as much as ball. 

It’s moving day, and boy have things moved. At the start of the day, England’s chances of winning this second Test, according to WinViz, were 18%. When Root walked in last, night, England were 23/2; as Root walked off to sun soaked applause from a joyful Lord’s crowd, those chances had soared to 47% having reached 391. The rest of the game is there for the taking for either side, England boosted by a slender first innings lead, India by the benefit of batting last on a pitch which is increasingly taking spin – albeit with the best finger spinner of all time fit and firing on the bench.

And yet, more broadly, the point made by Cricinfo’s Karthik Krishnaswamy is the one to focus on. In the modern era, English Test cricketers are defined more by volume than longevity, the obvious Burnley-based exceptions apart. The schedule gives chances, the schedule takes a toll. 

Joe Root’s present might be peak Root. It might be as good as we get. The onus isn’t on Root to make the present last longer than it should. The onus is on us to extract as much joy, as much inspiration, as much wonder from it, as we can – and then be happy with our lot.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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