Today might have been England’s best day of Test cricket in a fair while – not in the sense that they were entirely dominant, because (Root apart), it was a workmanlike performance rather than flaying the bowling to all parts. But in terms of the application and intent, it was as impressive as it was unlikely in the minds of many. Perhaps an indication came from the woefully out of touch Jos Buttler. He only scored 23, and it was a quite exceptionally ugly 23 too, but he fought to stay there, scratched around for an hour, added 50 with his captain, and above all made a contribution. Given England have all too often fallen in a heap when placed under any kind of pressure, this is worthy of note, and in this particular game situation also deserving of some praise. Questions around selection or worth in terms of a place are separate to this, it showed a determination that has often been lacking in the England batting and was most welcome.
Bairstow had earlier looked a million dollars in making 57, before rather peculiarly struggling badly against the short ball, and then falling face first into the most obvious of traps. It was annoying, given how telegraphed the plan was, but it was also odd to see; he had terrible difficulties with the short ball when he first arrived in international cricket, but since then (and he did get bombarded in his early matches, so had to learn quickly) he’s looked in little difficulty. Indeed, his technical issues were around anything but the bouncer. Still, he made a score, looked the part, and supported the peerless Root impeccably.
Moeen Ali too scored runs, again not a match defining number, but again enough to allow Root to score freely at the other end and to contribute to a partnership. Moeen’s batting weaknesses are well known, and his dismissal with an edge to the slips entirely predictable, but the aesthetics of his batting also means that few players evoke such a desire from the watching public to see him do well. He did enough today in the match context, which answers nothing about the wider questions, but in terms of today, it was fine. It just would have been nice to have more of it.
And then there’s Root himself. If there’s one thing that unites us all on this blog it’s the descent into greatesteveritis that afflicts the media on a daily basis, and most certainly not just for cricket. Root isn’t a greatest ever anything, and the likely forthcoming articles and polls asking whether he is can be guaranteed to rile everyone, but at this point in his career, with a Test average hovering around that 50 mark, we can start to place him in some context in the more recent England era. And when we do so, what can we say? We can certainly say he’s worthy of being talked about in the last 30 or 40 years with Cook, Pietersen, Gower, Boycott and Gooch, and has a better Test average than any of them for what that’s worth. Beyond that, it’s subjective, not least because comparing bowling and batting is reliant on the function of the two – or to put it another way, a great bowling era would look identical if it was instead a poor batting era. Players can only exist in their own environment, and Root has become one of England’s best in a long time. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s even more so given that a fair chunk of his career has been spent in a pretty poor England batting side. He’s carrying the batting in a way few have needed to in quite some years in England colours. We can, at the least, start thinking about where we place him in the England recent pantheon now he’s past 9,000 Test runs with more to come.
Today he was majestic. Other players hit the ball harder, further and more often, but Root’s manipulation of the field and speed of scoring is impressive generally, but when he’s in the kind of form he currently is, it gives the impression of a player in total control not just of himself, but of the opposition too. He must be driving an otherwise vastly superior Indian batting order up the wall.
As for the match situation, we have a game on. England have a first innings lead, albeit a modest one, and while it’s true that a fourth innings chase is the hardest way to win, the Lord’s pitch tends not to deteriorate too much, indeed it often gets slower, lower and harder on which to take wickets. One ball in the afternoon session scuttled along the ground, so we will have to see if that’s an indication of what is to come.
The third innings brings with it its own pressure with each wicket taken adding to it, a position England have highlighted on all too many occasions. But with the weather set fair, a result seems distinctly possible, and more to the point, England have a chance of coming out on top. Most people would have taken that given the rather low expectations from this series. England may well be accused of being a one man team in the batting, and it’s not an unreasonable jibe. But when that one batsman is playing as well as this, it evens up the contest no end. The captain is very much leading from the front. The last ball of the day provided the conclusion that a terrific day of cricket really deserved, with Anderson dismissed (notably upset with himself too) and England bowled out. It really is now over to the Indian batsmen and the England bowlers.