he timing of Test cricket’s long-awaited return to terrestrial TV could barely have been sweeter.
On the grand occasion of his 100th Test – and first available free to watch at home – Joe Root put on a clinic, again, registering his third century in as many matches, and 20th overall. In the opening Test of arguably cricket’s most challenging series, Root continued to lead by example.
Root is operating on a rare plane. He arrived in India in the form of his life, having made 228 and 186 to set up England’s win in Sri Lanka. The exhibition continued as he became the ninth player – and third Englishman, after Colin Cowdrey and Alec Stewart – to make a century in his 100th Test.
But for a wicket to the final ball and 15 mad, bad minutes that brought Root to the crease just before lunch, this was a very fine day for England. As it drew to a close, Root lay on the turf with his opposite number – as captain and batting kingpin – Virat Kohli nursing his cramp after a slog-swept six. Root deserved the lie dow.
By stumps, Dom Sibley, who had provided a clinic in obduracy, has fallen lbw to an arcing Jasprit Bumrah yorker for 87, ending a stand of 200. Root had 128, and his Test average is back above 50.
But in his new spirit of ruthlessness, Root will know the job is barely even half done in this first innings. He will remember December 2016, and England’s last Test before he became captain, when they made 477, only to concede 759 and lose by an innings.
He knows that it takes just a moment of madness to spark a collapse, that Kohli and his formidable batting lineup cannot wait for their turn on this pitch, and that India’s attack is in a different league to Sri Lanka’s. Again, there is a world-class spinner, R. Ashwin, supported by two others. But now, in Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma, there are two seamers skilled enough to find reverse swing in the match’s first session.
For all the riches India were able to bring back into their side (headlined by the captain Kohli), they do dearly miss Ravi Jadeja. When Axar Patel, his anointed replacement, went down injured too, they shuffled in another left-arm orthodox, Shahbaz Nadeem, for his second cap, and retained Washington Sundar. Neither threatened England and Root took them on – with the sweep, especially – in a way he simply did not with Ashwin.
Believe it or not, Root began the day looking rather nervous. As a wonderful ambassador for his team and sport, he had to do a lot of promotional talking this week. Perhaps the occasion sunk in. At the toss, which he won, he stumbled on his words and actually forgot the four changes that his team had made. And when he came to the crease during England’s tricky spell, he played a couple of false strokes and was almost run out.
In that quarter-hour, Rory Burns played an injudicious reverse-sweep off Ashwin, then Dan Lawrence – promoted to No3 with Zak Crawley injured – was pinned lbw by Jasrit Bumrah’s reverse. Burns and Sibley had done a good job until then, and the 63 they shared amounted to more than England’s four opening partnerships in Sri Lanka combined. Burns, back from paternity leave, was looking increasingly assured, then got carried away. That exposed Lawrence, then Root.
The captain did not look flustered for long, but he took his time to get going. He and Sibley weathered a superb spell of bowling after lunch from Ashwin, Bumrah and Sharma. Root had just 12 from his first 54 balls, but eventually reached his century from just 164. He made 83 from 97 in the final session alone.
When Sundar and Nadeem came on, he zipped to his fluent best, unfurling the full array of sweeps and cuts. He drew level with Sibley on 64, and by the time he had 98, his partner was still only on 67. India had become sloppy, with Root the beneficiary of four overthrows, and both batsmen passing fifty from misfields.
Sibley was the perfect partner. When Channel 4’s enterprising executives decided to bid to beam Test cricket into British households for free for the first time in 16 years, Sibley was probably not among the poster boys. But his approach was exactly what England needed, and would have taught Burns a couple of lessons. He played only the strokes he felt comfortable with, and it took a good ball to get him. He has learnt so quickly after making just six runs in his first three innings in Sri Lanka.
So did Root, but he just has a much wider array. This was a masterclass – at just the right moment.