We can't keep asking more of our stars, but with Joe Root in this zone, who would want it to end?

Mohammed Siraj congratulates Joe Root on his unbeaten 180
August 14, 2021

We cannot keep asking more of our star players. That has been the message from the ECB high command in recent months - including on the eve of this Test, when Tom Harrison, the chief executive, insisted the board were committed to a "people first" policy, for the remainder of England's summer campaign and, most significantly, on into this winter's Ashes.

"It's no longer acceptable to go 'once more unto the breach dear friends'," Harrison said, with Covid restrictions foremost in his thoughts, but with England's insane itinerary right up there at the top of everyone else's. For despite such stirring rhetoric, there really is no other way. The reality for England's cricketers, in the sport's post-pandemic panic, is that every day is Groundhog Day, every next-biggest occasion ever is just another day on the treadmill.

But just as Bill Murray discovered while hanging out in Punxsutawney, some days can still be better than others if you can find it within you to seize the moment. And when you've ploughed on for as long as Joe Root has, willing yourself to perform in empty echoing stadiums for months of bubbled-up existence, then to emerge into a sunlight Saturday of a Lord's Test, in front of a packed and enraptured crowd, with your own family looking on from their box in the Grandstand … well, there couldn't really be a more perfect stage for a masterpiece.

Root has had plenty reason to wave his bat in triumph in the course of his extraordinary 2021. But few milestone moments have dripped with more glee than his jab into the covers off Jasprit Bumrah, armed with the second new ball on Saturday afternoon. He scampered the single then veered abruptly towards his family in the stands, punching the air with a delirium that only the most devout can know.

For Root isn't just going to the well for England, time and time again. He's living in the well. He's so immersed in the day-to-day pressures of carrying the fortunes of his team that he's become at one with his surroundings, at peace with the pressure of treading water for hours at an end, knowing that if he dares to stop swimming, everyone is liable to sink. Today he soared, and it was glorious.

"Joe and I, when we were walking out, we were just smiling at each other," Jonny Bairstow said at the close, after an innings of 57 that ended up being less than a third of his captain's tally, but is still, remarkably, the only other half-century to have come from one of his team-mates this series.

"How good is it to walk out on a Saturday at Lord's, with one of your best mates?" Bairstow added. "That's exactly what it was. Our partnership was about having fun while we were out there, and to have a full crowd back at Lord's, with the new stand, with family and friends, was really special. That Lord's buzz, or hum, or however you want to phrase it, was most definitely back."

Much like James Anderson's first-innings five-for, hindsight confers an inevitability on Root's magnificence that circumstance really shouldn't allow. It was a point put to him in the lead-up to this match - as he opted once again to do his captain's media duties two days out from the Test, in a bid to cocoon his game-brain and filter out the noise for an extra 24 hours.

"How are you Joe?" was the gist of the final question, almost as an afterthought at the end of a 20-minute interrogation, featuring topics including the return of Moeen Ali and the wider failings of a team that had been outplayed in each of their first three Tests of the summer, the longest they'd been made to wait for a home victory since their struggles against Sri Lanka and India back in 2014.

He insisted he was fine - but then so too, you suspect, did Ben Stokes last month, when he fielded that SOS after the white-ball Covid outbreak, and broke off his recuperation to lead out a squad of reserves. Today, however, Root offered up the most ringing affirmative he could muster, an innings so serene it was as though the solitude of his supremacy had bought even his classically tailored game an extra yard of response time.

Soft hands, calm choices, unhurried strokeplay - at least until his white-ball savvy surged to the fore as Anderson got peppered in the day's frantic closing moments. He barely presented a straight bat through the V at any stage of his innings, relying instead on nudges off his legs for the balls that veered too straight, and needle-threading judgement on his favoured off-side, which made a mockery at times of Virat Kohli's attempts to bung up his options with a trio of short covers and two slips to check his dab to third man.

And in keeping with the need to think happy thoughts to haul England through this summer's predicament, Root's running between the wickets was able to step up an extra notch once he had linked up with sidekicks in whom he could fully trust - Bairstow in the first instance, but Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali too, a trio whose white-ball world-beating counts for more than perhaps it ought to in the cramped confines of this itinerary. In the end Bairstow was bested by the short ball - a method he cannot really plan for when ruling the roost in one-day cricket - while Buttler and Moeen made just 50 runs between them. But they between scratched out half-century stands, and gave Root the ballast he needed to drag the match towards parity.

None of this is sustainable. It's barely even credible - much as in 2018, when India's 4-1 losing margin was a travesty, it beggars belief that they are not already 1-0 up from Trent Bridge, and pushing for a second. But like a high-wire act over Niagara Falls, Root's progress is both utterly compelling, and so inexorable, you start to believe he might just get to the other side without looking down.

For his achievements in 2021 are already sensational. In the course of this innings, Root first skittered past Graham Gooch's former England record of 8900 Test runs, then pushed on past 9000 too, and at a younger age than anyone bar the one Englishman ahead of him in the run-charts, Alastair Cook.

By the time he'd run out of partners on 180 not out, Root's tally for the year was close to double that of any other batter in world cricket - 1244 to Rohit Sharma's mid-match tally of 669 - and while England's overloaded itinerary is a contributory factor, the comparison with his peers is even more revealing.

By the end of England's innings, Root had scored almost four times as many runs in 2021 as his next most prolific team-mate, Rory Burns (353), and more runs than the rest of England's top six in this match combined.

He's made five of their six centuries this year, including each of their four 150-plus scores, and is only one shy of England's all-time record of six in a calendar year. And, as if further proof was needed of the burden he has carried for his side, in this match he even had to see off two hat-trick balls in the same innings. His first ball came in the wake of Haseeb Hameed's golden duck on Friday; and his 277th came 152 runs later, as Ishant Sharma started a new over, fresh from delivering Sam Curran his own first-baller.

"I run out of superlatives, to be honest," Bairstow said at the close. "He means a heck of a lot [to the team], like he does to English cricket.

"To go into second place in the leading run-scorers in the history of the English game is very special, to pass 9000 Test runs in this game is extremely special, to score another 180 not out at Lord's is great, isn't it, and to see him in the form that he is, playing the way he is, it's awesome to be out there with him, putting on partnerships with him, and enjoying every single moment of it."

And as a consequence, he's on the brink of his masterpiece now. A year to stand comparison with any of the greats that have gone before. Richards in 1976, Ponting in 2005… even the most prolific of them all, Mohammad Yousuf, whose 1788 runs in his annus mirablis in 2006 included nine centuries in 19 innings. That's as many as Root himself has now played, but he's still got 12 more scheduled before the New Year. As might have been mentioned once or twice, England's itinerary really is something else.

But more immediately, Root's got the chance to prove a point about his contemporary credentials. The mutterings in recent seasons were that he had slipped out of the fabled "Fab Four" of modern batting - his century at Trent Bridge last week had been his first on home soil since India's last tour in 2018, notwithstanding the fact that his role in England's World Cup triumph had caused a wavering in his Test focus.

But now it's Kohli who's feeling the heat for his own relative dip in standards. In consecutive series against England in 2016-17 and 2018, he amassed the small matter of 655 runs at 109.16, and 593 at 59.30. Likewise, Steve Smith racked up 687 runs at 137.40 in Australia's 4-0 rout in their last home Ashes in 2017-18; then followed that up with 774 more at 110.57.

Root, right at this moment, has 353 runs at 176.50, with potentially seven more innings to come. The same, in fact, as his next most prolific colleague for the entire year. It may not be fair to expect Root to keep giving more to the cause. But when you're in a zone quite like this, who would ever wish it to end?

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