very sign points towards 2021 being a defining year in the career and life of Joe Root. He is 30 years old, the team he captains have 18 Tests in the next year, including epic series in India and Australia.
Well, Root could not have dreamed of a better start. Yesterday, England bowled out Sri Lanka for 135. Today, he picked up where he left off on day one, making his merry way to England’s highest-ever score in Sri Lanka. By the time rain returned at tea, Root had 168, giving his team a lead of 185. On a surface spinning sharply, Root has put England right in charge.
To top it off, the two significant partnerships Root shared while forging that position of strength were with players on the fringes of his team. First, 114 with Jonny Bairstow to get England on the verge of parity, then, even more pleasingly, 173 with debutant Dan Lawrence. With Bairstow and Lawrence both proving their quality, England have some competition for places in their batting order when Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope and Rory Burns return in India next month.
It was a striking arrival from Lawrence (right), a 23-year-old from Chingford. After rain delayed proceedings by 70 minutes, he found himself at the crease early, with Bairstow well caught at a very close gully off Lasith Embuldeniya. By then, Root had survived an lbw review and there was plenty of turn on show.
Lawrence was the beneficiary of some generous bowling from Sri Lanka, and he lashed a full toss through the covers for his first boundary to take England into the lead. By lunch, with Root on 99, he had moved to 40, full of sound leaving, fluid foot movement and some eye-catching strokes: cuts whenever the spinners dropped short and an array of sweeps (one of which went sailing over the boundary). He should be a lot of fun to watch in years to come.
Lawrence lost his way a little when he made it to 60. He was dropped at gully, then Niroshan Dickwella missed a stumping chance. Eventually,
Dilruwan Perera ended a very promising innings, Lawrence caught at short leg by Kusal Mendis.
Lawrence left with 73 to his name, the same score Root made on debut in Nagpur in 2012. Root has gone all right since, even if, in recent years, it feels rather like he has become underappreciated on the global scene and taken for granted at home.
There are reasons for this: he set exceptionally high standards as a youngster (he averaged 55 when he turned 25); he has failed to convert fifties into centuries (although that only highlights the remarkable rate he makes 50); and, perhaps most significantly, he has struggled to remain in the rare air occupied by Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson.
Root is rarely the most popular figure on the world scene. At home, every Englishman thinks they could do a better job. Many think he is not much of a captain, but none of those people are in his team. And while he had a lean run in 2020, failing to reach three figures for the first time in a whole calendar year, his team did not lose a game he played.
Make no mistake, Root is already an England great, with plenty to add. When the rain came, he was nine shy of 8,000 Test runs. Ten Englishmen have more than 7,500, and none average more than his 49, and all the others have played more than his 98 matches. Only four have reached 150 more often. He is also England’s finest ODI runscorer ever.
This was a statement century, characterised by his superb running between the wickets and the way he prevented the Sri Lankans settling; just eight of the first 94 overs were maidens, and he and Lawrence shared 67 singles in their stand.
He swept relentlessly, always sending the ball into the ground (on one occasion, Sri Lanka thought they had him caught at short leg off the glove, but the ball was grounded). In fact, it was a dinky swept single that took Root unfussily to his century two balls after lunch, which might have tasted a little spicier while on 99 not out.
Sometimes it feels like Root needs to be a little greedier with the bat. As he enters his thirties, he looks very hungry indeed.