The turmoil of the past few weeks could easily have dampened Joe Root’s natural spark but on a gripping fourth day in Nottingham, one that saw the pendulum swing throughout and finished with India in the ascendancy, the England captain delivered his 21st Test century and one that must rank among the finest of his career.
As Root punched India’s Shardul Thakur down the ground for four shortly after tea, the ball cruising across the green outfield, he didn’t even wait for it to cross the rope. Instead the 30-year-old could be seen haring off in celebration of his first Test hundred on home soil in nearly three years and his fourth in what is proving a bumper 2021.
This memorable performance, coming against a quality Indian attack which got the Dukes ball zipping around under the floodlights, contained the lot: class, poise, mental fortitude and technical excellence, all while wearing a scampish smile throughout. You would scarcely have known this was a leader with a heap on his plate at present.
Along with the ongoing burden of carrying a creaking batting line-up, Root has recently lost his vice-captain, best friend and talisman all-rounder, Ben Stokes, to mental burnout; he has seen Jofra Archer’s hopes of playing in the Ashes this winter ended by the cruel recurrence of an elbow stress fracture; and he has found his bubble-fatigued players distracted by the question of whether families can join them in Australia.
But out in the middle, over the course of nearly five hours and with Virat Kohli’s bowlers regularly punching holes at the other end, these problems seemed to melt into the background, Root caressing 14 fours, passing 1,000 Test runs for the year and moving past VVS Laxman, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Javed Miandad in the all-time Test runs chart.
The question now, heading into the final morning, is whether his 109 from 172 balls turned the tide in this first Test or simply delayed the inevitable. As the two sides left the field India were 52 for one chasing 209. Stuart Broad, his headband from last year restored, did nick off KL Rahul in a late burst of theatre but when Cheteshwar Pujara spanked the last ball of the day for four, the tourists looked favourite.
India have certainly made the bulk of the running during this series opener, ever since rolling their hosts for 183 all out on the opening day. The next highest score in England’s second innings of 303 all out was Sam Curran’s 32 from No 8, rather summing up how reliant they have become on their captain with the bat. Rory Burns, who made 132 against New Zealand at Lord’s, is their only other centurion this year.
Root will always take two failures in victory over personal success in defeat, but there was no option but to strive for the ideal combination of the two when he walked out in the morning session with England a familiar 46 for two. Burns had edged behind to the lively Mohammed Siraj for 18, while Zak Crawley saw his average for the year drop to 11 when becoming the first of a sparkling five-wicket haul for Jasprit Bumrah.
The deficit sat at 49 and India were buzzing in the field, but through a third-wicket stand of 89 with Dom Sibley England moved into the black. Sibley was typically glacial, contributing just 12 runs, but Root’s delight at the opener’s dogged work could be summed up by a punch of the air when, on 24, Sibley overturned an lbw decision.
Bar one skittish period before lunch, by which point England had moved 24 runs in front, Root played with the controlled impishness that underpins his best work. And when he eventually lost Sibley for 28 from 133 balls – the opener’s first attempt at aggression against Bumrah producing a sparkling catch by Rishabh Pant behind the stumps – he chiefly looked to anchor the innings and allow others to attack.
First came Jonny Bairstow, delivering a punchy 30 before being suckered into a short-ball trap by Siraj, then Dan Lawrence with a similarly assertive 25 that featured four typically wristy fours. But when Thakur trapped the No 6 lbw before the tea break attempting to flick a fifth, England sat 211 for five and a lead of just 116.
This was a situation an in-form Jos Buttler would have relished but instead he fell immediately after the break for 17 when Thakur persuaded him to leave one that decked in a touch and crashed into the stumps. Instead it was Curran who was out there to hug Root upon reaching his century.
Then, however, came a three-wicket burst from Bumrah with the second new ball that could prove decisive. First came the end of Root’s vigil, caught behind, before he shut down a typically pugnacious counter attack from Curran and bowled Broad first ball. This was Bumrah at his very best, that bullwhip action from the tip-toeing run-up proving irresistible as he finished with figures of five for 64.
It has left England needing to produce something similar if they are to ensure this isn’t the first time their captain has made a century in a Test defeat. Given the way he played, it doesn’t deserve to be.