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Joe Root

It was 10 minutes after the lunch interval when Joe Root walked out at Headingley to try to save the third Test and the Ashes. 

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The Western Terrace greeted its hero with the familiar lowing call that draws out the vowels in the middle of his surname so that it can almost be mistaken for a cacophony of boos. It sounded like a dirge, melancholy and mournful.

Opposite, the forbidding stone spire of St Michael and All Angels’ Church was framed against a clear blue sky.  

Joe Root's 75 not out has given England faint hope of pulling off an incredible victory

Joe Root’s 75 not out has given England faint hope of pulling off an incredible victory

Root bounced back impressively after being dismissed for a duck in previous two innings

Root bounced back impressively after being dismissed for a duck in previous two innings

Root bounced back impressively after being dismissed for a duck in previous two innings

England ended the day 156 for three meaning they need another 203 runs to win the Tes
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England ended the day 156 for three meaning they need another 203 runs to win the Tes

England ended the day 156 for three meaning they need another 203 runs to win the Tes

England were 15 for one and Shane Warne had already been seen checking out of his hotel in Leeds city centre, anticipating another collapse from the calamitous Poms, defeat inside three days and an early trip back to his base in London.

Even though he had struggled in the series, everyone knew that Root represented England’s last hope of being rescued from humiliation in front of his home Yorkshire crowd. 

When he is at his best, no one else in this side possesses his resilience or his technique in the five-day game. No one else was capable of anchoring an improbable recovery.

No one else was capable of even bringing England close to the target of 359 that Australia had set them to win the game. The problem was that Root had not been playing like Root in this series. 

Dismissed for a duck in his previous two innings, his captaincy subjected to increasingly fierce criticism and his batting marooned in some hybrid world between red- and white-ball cricket, Root was beleaguered. 

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When he caught James Pattinson on Saturday morning, it was Root’s 100th catch for England. Most were convinced it would be the only century he completed in this Test. His recent form did not suggest otherwise. But this challenge was made for him. It was made for the old him, anyway.

It was made for him before playing in the Big Bash during the winter and dedicating himself to England’s great white-ball goal of winning the World Cup seemed to rob him of some of his former Test certainties. 

Root rediscovered the technique that marks him out as England's finest five-day batsman

Root rediscovered the technique that marks him out as England's finest five-day batsman

Root rediscovered the technique that marks him out as England’s finest five-day batsman

Stunned by being dismissed for 67 the day before, their lowest Ashes total for 71 years, England desperately needed their skipper to rediscover himself.

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As he batted, it felt as if he and England were travelling back in time. Spectators who have feasted on the riot of slog-sweeps, ramp shots, steepling sixes and crashing boundaries that are the swashbuckling staple of the white-ball game suddenly greeted Root’s classic forward defensive shots with cheers of relief and joy.

After the anarchy of the 67, those cheers were laced with irony, too. Every small gain, every ball survived, was welcomed as if it were a great victory.

It was an inversion of the recent norm, a craving for some sort of stability and discipline to replace the careless surrenders of recent matches. And ball by ball, over by over, that was what Root provided.

After Jason Roy had been clean bowled by Pat Cummins, stumbling forward like a drunk tripping over a step in a bar as he tried in vain to defend his wicket, Root and Joe Denly slowly began to rebuild. 

At 15 for two, the first step was to stave off another humiliation. Denly still looked horribly out of touch but he rode his luck and he and his captain began to build a partnership.

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Every milestone was met with roars that said the crowd were grateful for small mercies. Fifty came up, then the 50 partnership, then Australia’s lead fell below 300. There was nothing exciting, nothing expansive.

Just the steady accumulation of runs. In an era where we have been conditioned to believe that there can be no pause in the excitement, boring was beautiful again.

After the glory of the World Cup and the initial euphoria of the first days of this Ashes series at Edgbaston, when everything seemed possible and the Hollies Stand poked merciless fun at the Australians for ‘Sandpapergate’, this was a return to the gallows humour to which England fans are more accustomed.

It is the hope that kills you and in the early stages of this Root-led revival, it still seemed as if there was none.

Root's innings was built on graft as he grinded out a steady accumulation of runs

Root's innings was built on graft as he grinded out a steady accumulation of runs

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Root’s innings was built on graft as he grinded out a steady accumulation of runs

Denly played and missed so many times that it was comical. The statistics showed he played 32 false shots (19 misses and 13 edges). Typically in Test cricket, the analysis site CricViz said, that number of errors would result in three wickets. But Denly survived. And at the other end, Root looked compact and rock-solid.

A beautiful cover drive off Nathan Lyon took Root to his 50. He acknowledged it by raising his bat but it was muted. He knew that if England had any chance of winning this Test, this could only be the start. 

Maybe he could hear people talking about his poor conversion rate of half-centuries to centuries. He knew England would need one of the biggest scores of his career to get through this.

Denly reached his own 50 before his luck ran out but his 126-run third-wicket stand with Root had given England a glimpse of salvation. Next, Ben Stokes came to the crease. He, too, had got the memo. 

Gone was the flamboyant shot-making and the kind of wild, wide flaying that had got him out in the first innings. Stokes scored two in the 50 deliveries he faced. He was still there at the close.

And so, of course, was Root. Looking like the master again. Looking like the accumulator. Looking like the player who knows how to wear a Test attack down in the heat of the afternoon on his home track. 

When the last ball of the day was bowled, he was still there on 75. they had come from 189 balls. From an innings hewn of concentration and patience and diligence and craft.

There is still an awful long way for England to go. They need another 203 runs to win with seven wickets remaining. If Root can stick around, if he can anchor his side to what would be a stunning victory, it would be his masterpiece.