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Analysis

Joe Root, Dawid Malan show what England may yet be capable of this series

After a torrid build-up, captain Root has shown a truck-load of fortitude to carry his side even this far

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
10-Dec-2021
Joe Root and Dawid Malan were on their chinstraps by the close of a draining third day. Both men toppled over with cramp as the shadows lengthened across the Gabba; both men flirted dangerously outside the off stump as the balls remaining ticked down into single figures, most dramatically Root to a fierce final-ball lifter from Cameron Green that hinted at the dangers that could await on an increasingly divotted surface.
But both men also endured, unbeaten on 86 and 80 respectively, in an unbroken second-wicket stand of 159 that has already surpassed England's substandard opening-day effort of 147. In so doing, the pair have transformed perceptions of the challenge that this squad may yet be able to mount in the course of the next four Tests, even if their hopes of overturning a first-innings deficit of 278 remain on the optimistic side of plausible.
For a note of caution is wise before England get too giddy about turning the tables in this match, let alone the series - as they did so memorably back in the first Test of 2010-11, when Alastair Cook and Co. responded to their deficit of 221 with a scarcely credible 517 for 1 declared. After all, fleeting passages of English competence at the Gabba are not actually all that rare.
Way back in the 1994-95 Ashes opener, for instance, England were similarly well placed on 211 for 2 with only one day of the match to come, after Mark Taylor - to general astonishment - chose not to enforce the follow-on. Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick duly thrived in the fourth-evening sunshine to grasp an apparent lifeline, but unfortunately, the longer that contest dragged out, the more it brought Shane Warne into play on a fifth-day turner - cue career-best figures of 8 for 71, and an emphatic 184-run defeat.
Even in Nasser Hussain's much-lampooned bowl-first Test of 2002-03, it's overlooked that England initially responded with courage to the first-day indignities that Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden had inflicted on them. They reached 170 for 1 in their first innings, and later 268 for 3, with fifties from four of their top five, including Hussain - but crucially no centuries, which was the flaw that undermined their rearguard on the same ground four years later, when Paul Collingwood (96) and Kevin Pietersen (92) stretched the game into the fifth morning, but not much further than that.
Those performances exist as proof of what we all know to be true about success in Australia. It comes down to batting big, and batting relentlessly, and giving your bowlers enough runs to buy the wickets that ultimately win the matches, which was a point that Malan noted at the close.
"The one thing we learnt in the last series is, as soon as we think too far ahead, you open the door for them," he said. "They are so brilliant at closing that door for us. We need one more good 100-run partnership to put a score on the board, and then who knows what could happen."
And yet, if there's a reason to believe that this particular stand could be another that bucks the general Gabba trend, then it comes down to the identity of England's main man in the middle. With apologies to Malan, who averages close to 40 in Australia and whose 140 at Perth in 2017-18 is one more century than his skipper has so far managed Down Under, Root is currently the Alpha and Omega of England's batting. Without him, there is no challenge; with him, there is still reason to believe in miracles.
"Joe obviously speaks for himself, in what he's done in his career," Malan said. "Batting with him is great. He takes the pressure off you. He always looks to score, he seems somehow to find a way of putting the pressure back on the bowlers. And his method just works everywhere he plays, so for him to carry on the form that he had in our summer and early on in the English winter has been fantastic. It's great signs for us as a team that Joe is playing well out here, and leading from the front."
For no-one has batted bigger, or more relentlessly, than Root in 2021. On 27, a deflected single through backward point carried him past Michael Vaughan's tally of 1481 runs in a calendar year, the most by any England batter; on 45, he nudged Mitchell Starc in a similar direction to take that total to 1500, and keep pace with the sort of scoring spree he'll need to overthrow Mohammad Yousuf's 2006 haul of 1788. And as anyone who has witnessed Root's stealthy methods in the past, when his dab to third man is working, to tick up the singles and rotate the strike for his partners, trying to isolate and extract him - as Josh Hazlewood did to such forensic effect during his nine-ball duck in the first innings - becomes as elusive a task as catching the will o' the wisp.
It wasn't that Root clicked immediately back into his zone for this second innings, however. All the mental preparation in the world could not have cleansed his mind after the debasement his team had endured in the preceding 48 hours, and Nathan Lyon - his 400th Test wicket proving elusive in a different way - was the near-beneficiary of a different sort of skittish start. On 1, Root's eagerness to command the stage and banish some close fielders nearly led him to loop a mistimed sweep behind square, and when Pat Cummins brought himself back for an early skipper's duel, a brace of edges - inside and out - almost prised a priceless opening.
But thereafter it was a different contest, as Root's reversion to a middle-stump guard, with his eyes perpendicular to his off stump to guard against the sort of each-way seam movement that had often undone him in the 2019 series, began to reap its rewards. It helped too that his arrival at the crease had been delayed until the 23nd over - hardly the 48-over platform that Steve Smith had been afforded in Australia's innings, but a testament in particular to Haseeb Hameed, who had started his innings by protecting his partner Rory Burns from a king pair, and finished it having seen off most of the Kookaburra's shine for his skipper. And with Hazlewood oddly absent for much of the afternoon, Root capitalised on the relatively placid conditions to make the rest of Australia's attack look human.
And that matters, irrespective of whether this particular contest reverts to type. For it's hardly overstating it to suggest that the hunger that burns within Root this year stems from the indignities he endured while leading England's last Ashes campaign four years ago. On that occasion he racked up five fifties in as many Tests but could not convert any of his starts to three figures. The closest he came was at Sydney in the final Test, where the effort almost broke him as he retired exhausted with a tally of 141 runs for once out. As he admitted in the ECB's recent documentary, The Ultimate Test, he realised soon afterwards that an extra focus on fitness was the only way to advance his game.
Not many captains get a second chance in Ashes lore - Root is the first Englishman to lead two tours of Australia since Mike Brearley in 1979-80, and the first to take charge of two Ashes campaigns since JWHT Douglas either side of the First World War (the second of which, in 1920-21, resulted in England's first 5-0 whitewash). And after a build-up to the series in which mental preparation has never been more critical, it's taken a truck-load of fortitude to carry England even this far.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket