Root commits to grinding Australia down at Old Trafford
Far from pretty and at times bordering on the masochistic, the often torturous platform laid by Joe Root, Joe Denly and the early phase of Ben Stokes' masterpiece in the second innings at Headingley has set the template for how England believe they can outlast Australia's three-man pace attack at Old Trafford and the Oval.
In a marked contrast between the two teams, England have opted to retain a struggling Jason Roy by shuffling from an opening spot to No. 4, while pushing Denly up to open alongside Rory Burns. Root made no secret of his desire to see the openers and himself at No. 3 work assiduously to grind down Australia's three pace bowlers, given that they do not possess an allrounder of the quality of Stokes to provide additional bowling support.
"It was a good template that second innings and I know the wicket was probably at its best on that third evening but I just felt [against] a three-man seam attack if you keep on putting overs in [their legs] and everything," Root said. "As well as Australia bowled - and they were fantastic, very patient, didn't give us much, and it was a real grind - but if you look at how that second new ball unfolded the following day, more scoring opportunities came.
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"That partnership between Ben and Jonny [Bairstow] started to speed up quite quickly didn't it? We look at the guys who could potentially take advantage of that now, at four, five, six and seven - it's a very exciting lower order. It's about maximising the chance for them to do as much damage as possible. We've thought long and hard about it and we feel like we've got the right players, but maybe reshuffling it is going to be what really works for us and get us off to a strong start.
"You look at someone like Jason coming in lower down and the ability to play in his manner, a little bit more freely when it's not doing as much might give him a better chance. I thought the way Joe [Denly] handled day three, the way he played, if he can harness that and take that into this week, he'll have a really good chance of being successful at the top. As I said, I think we've got the right players and it's just about getting them in the right places."
Australia, meanwhile, have elected to drop the highly experienced Usman Khawaja in favour of Marcus Harris and/or Matthew Wade, demonstrating that England's plans for the touring team's left-handers have hit home. Root said that while Headingley had given England an enormous lift and opened up the series, it was critical that the hosts do not come to Manchester thinking the rest will follow the same exhilarating path.
"We're very much in the series now. I think the most important thing for us is we don't try and walk into this game with anything granted to us," he said. "If anything you expect a big response from someone like Australia and we don't want this series to be remembered for that one game alone and that last hour. We want it to be because we've won the series.
"We're going to have to work extremely hard again this week. Of course it might work in our favour, having that in the back of their minds but ultimately we've got to look after ourselves and make sure we start a lot better with the bat than we did in the last game and continue to keep doing the right thing with the ball."
A decent example of that attitude is provided by DRS, something England and Root have used far better than Tim Paine and Australia - the tourists are yet to successfully overturn a single decision in the field all series. "When I started I was quite emotional with it," Root said. "If Cooky was captain and I'm stood as slip - 'it's out, it's out! It's got to be out' - and it'll be missing by two sets of stumps. Gradually the more you get used to it, the more logic you put into the decision-making.
"You also have to try and read the bowlers, read the keeper, see how emotional and confident they are. Use the guys at point and short leg for height. But you have to put trust in your teammates. There has to be an element of honesty and you have to trust that they're making that decision which is best going to help England win a Test match, not to try and hopefully get a wicket or buy a wicket. It's either out or it's not. It's not going to change by just hoping it's going to go on and clip the stumps.
"Stripping it back and understanding it's there for a mistake rather than to try and steal a wicket… but I'm sure I'll get two or three wrong now. Just try and take the emotion out of it more than anything."
There were signs, too, at Leeds that the Australians are getting more vocal than they have been since Newlands last year, with numerous instances of verbal back and forth captured by broadcasters. In one instance, Root responded to Josh Hazlewood's bluster with a grin, in a signal moment during the aforementioned batting grind on day three. "There was a little bit of niggle but you expect that in a close contest," Root said.
"Generally the series is played in a really good spirit. I think there's been a few conversations out there in the last game. It'll be interesting to see if that carries on throughout, but it's Ashes cricket. You expect people to get emotional, you expect a bit of rivalry and you expect guys wanting to win for their country. I can only go on what I heard out there and it wasn't too bad. A few handbags and petty comments, but you get that whoever you play against. It's part of Test cricket."