Captain heads for sleepless nights over top order
In-form Root needs more support to lessen burden of expectation, writes Scyld Berry at Trent Bridge
Joe Root has admitted that he does not sleep much during Test matches. Only on the Sunday night after Lord’s, once England had won the opening Test, did their new Test captain sleep well, so Root himself said. It is lucky that Tests are no longer timeless, as they sometimes were before the Second World War.
England’s top-order batting is liable to be the subject which, more than any other, keeps Root awake at night. Root played like a dream in scoring 78 off 76 balls – he was well on course for the fastest Test century by any England captain – yet his team are on the wrong end of his second Test in charge, and in imminent danger of being pegged back by South Africa to 1-1.
England’s batting, so Root might reflect, seems to be only a little more solid than it was last summer when Alex Hales, Nick Compton and James Vince auditioned, without any of them being taken on full-time. In this Test, the new captain had to rescue England from a start of three for two wickets, and it will be no easier when England have to chase down a target in the fourth innings on a pitch ever more untrustworthy in its bounce, especially when Morne Morkel is steaming in from the Radcliffe Road End.
Should he have selected Mark Stoneman for this Test to bat at three? That would have pushed Gary Ballance down to No5, where his footwork is less likely to be exposed, with Jonny Bairstow and the rest dropping down a place. Stoneman could have played as an extra batsman instead of Liam Dawson. On the other hand, South Africa’s left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj, has had a big impact, so Dawson could yet spin a few in their second innings. Mmmm, is that the time, 1.50am already?
But there are many other tasks to make the head that wears the crown lie uneasy on a pillow. The Decision Review System, or rather England’s use of it … Alastair Cook was brilliant when deciding whether to review an lbw verdict, after giving the appearance of listening to the bowler and basing his decision on the opinion of his wicketkeeper. Calmly presiding: that was when Root’s predecessor was at his best.
The flaw in this process was evident, however, when Bairstow was adamant in calling for a review in South Africa’s first innings, fully supporting the bowler, Stuart Broad, but the ball was subsequently shown to be heading well over the stumps. Perhaps short-leg has to be involved as well, if there is one, or else point square of the wicket, to judge the height. Gosh, 3.20 am already, and not a wink of sleep.
What else, away from the cricket? On the second morning of this game Root tweeted his support of England Women – “Good luck” to Heather Knight – ahead of their last qualifying game against West Indies, so another will be in order before their semi-final. Neither Cook nor Andrew Strauss tweeted, nor Sir Len Hutton nor Douglas Jardine, but social media helps England’s cricketers to connect with the young.
Before this match Root had to sign more than 300 cricket bats for charitable purposes – they were laid out in the squash courts at Trent Bridge – and 100 cricket shirts. So do all the other England players, but Root also has to carry around the captain’s blazer, to be worn at the toss, in addition to the formal team suit.
All the media work, too. Cook changed during his reign, once Trevor Bayliss became head coach, and announced his starting XI on the eve of the match. Root is doing the same because it suggests clarity of vision and purpose – better than keeping the public and media, as well as the opposition, guessing.
At least Root’s own game is holding up, in spite of the lack of sleep. He took an excellent catch at second slip, swooping to get his head close to the ball, not stiff and upright, and another that was more regulation in South Africa’s second innings.
Scores of 190, five and 78 so far, off only 323 balls, taking the attack to South Africa: an aggregate of 273, far more than double England’s next highest run-scorer. But England needed a century by somebody in their first innings to take them ahead of South Africa’s 335.
Is that the light of dawn? Time to open the curtains, and face a new day, and the prospect of a very demanding target set by South Africa, and England chasing it with Ballance at three and Bairstow at five. It is just as well that Root thrives on – lives for – challenges.
Under pressure: Gary Ballance could have batted at No 5, taking the heat off his shoulders, had Mark Stoneham been selected