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Joe Root's prove the toughest nuts to crack as Australia close in

After England captain's dismissal to the final ball of the fourth day's play, the visitors brace for the end of any realistic Ashes challenge

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
How do you like your metaphors? As literal as they come, please.
Very well then. The dismissal of England's captain, Joe Root, to the final ball of the fourth day's play at Adelaide was the ultimate kick in the balls for a team that was already hurting and humiliated, but is now increasingly resigned to being a laughing stock as it braces for the end of any realistic Ashes challenge.
Blows to the "abdomen", as the ECB euphemistically described Root's discomfort in the nets before play, are invariably amusing to everyone except the recipient - just ask Alastair Cook, as BT Sport did during their dinner-break studio discussion, recalling the incident at Cardiff in 2015, in which Root himself had been the giggling onlooker as Cook succumbed to an awkward bounce in the slip cordon. Karma is clearly a dish best served cold.
Double such blows, however, in the manner of Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake in The Simpsons, are invariably side-splittingly hilarious - not least because, in this case, the ultimate punchline was still to come, courtesy of Mitchell Starc, Australia's plum-squelcher-in-chief, who hounded Root from around the wicket to the bitter end of a bitter day.
Even England's bowling coach, Jon Lewis, found himself suppressing a smirk as he fielded enquiries about the captain's lower reaches - "I've not inspected it myself," he stated. And yet, there's no question that the transience of Root's physical pain will be nothing compared to the mental anguish he will be feeling at the close of another shattering day.
This Ashes campaign will define his legacy as captain, Root had admitted before the series got underway. Unfortunately, Daniel Kalisz's perfectly timed photo of Starc's late-evening nutcracker may end up framing that definition - much like Mike Gatting's mashed nose epitomises England's 5-0 blackwash in 1985-86, or David "Biggles" Gower in his Tiger Moth is an enduring shorthand for the chaos of the 1990-91 Ashes tour. At least Tim Paine might breathe a sigh of relief. There's a brand-new captain's d***pic dominating the series narrative.
"There was a lot of sympathy," Travis Head insisted at the close, although the stump mic revealed there had been an understandable amount of mirth too, including a suggestion about using "the whole frozen veg section on it, maybe?"
"We got told to give him some space so we kept well away," Head added. "Obviously he went through some trouble this morning, and Starc-y on that line is never pretty. Unfortunately with the day that he's had, it wasn't a great time to get hit."
It wasn't just Australia in on the act though. Ben Stokes was seen wincing in faux-solidarity as he joked with Nathan Lyon at the non-striker's end, perhaps reminiscing about his own moment of misfortune at Lord's in the 2019 Ashes, when he memorably announced live on air that he had been hit "right in the d***" by Josh Hazlewood. You see, it's never not funny.
But Root must be wondering what on earth he's done to displease "Mother Cricket" (whom Mickey Arthur, South Africa's former coach, was often fond of claiming would "bite you on the backside" - a target area that might actually have been preferable). For this isn't the first time that his best efforts have been overwhelmed by off-field circumstances on an Ashes campaign.
Four years ago, a bout of gastroenteritis floored Root mid-rearguard at Sydney, and left him incapacitated at the end-of-series presentations, after he had managed to emerge from his sick-bed to produce one final, futile half-century. Now this incident is similarly muscling Root's most valiant endeavours to one side, because the extent of his discomfort was plain as day even before Starc's agonising final flourishes.
Root returned to the field midway through the afternoon session, having been sent for a scan - which in itself was an indication of quite how awful that initial, box-less, hit must have been. Cue endless WhatsApp gags about checking to see if "English cricket has any balls", but it took plenty for him to front up at any stage, let alone to play a full role with both ball and bat.
Despite waddling around the outfield like a saddle-sore cowboy, Root was soon fronting back up as England's senior spinner, bumping Ollie Robinson's optimistic offbreaks back down the pecking order to help pick off Australia's tail, and even ended the day with more Test wickets in 2021 than Stuart Broad (14 to 12 is the current tally). Then, as England's innings began to take a familiar turn, he emerged after tea into the full glare of Adelaide's floodlights for precisely the sort of examination that is becoming the stuff of pink-ball cliché, and which a lesser player might have preferred to duck in the circumstances.
"Joe's a strong leader in this group, and he showed a hell of a lot of character to get out there and fight, because I know he was pretty sore," Lewis said. "Once he got hit again, he could have easily walked off and a nightwatchman could have come in. But that's the character of the man, and what it means to him to be England captain. He showed how hard he wants to fight for the team, and how hard we're prepared to fight to get back in this game."
And yet, the subtext of Root's re-emergence and endurance to the close, is that that none of England's remaining batters - beyond his not-out partner Stokes - could be trusted to guide the team's fortunes through such an inescapably critical passage of play.
It's not a difficult conclusion to draw, given how the stats stack up with a maximum of two innings remaining in 2021 for England's incumbent top four. With 1630 runs, Root tops the charts by a preposterous 1100, with an average (62.69) more than 20 points clear of the next-best in show, Malan (42.00). Of those who've featured in even half of Root's 14 Tests, the put-upon Rory Burns remains the best of the rest, having improved his own average to 27.89 with today's doughty but ultimately insubstantial 34.
The injustice must sting like … well, you can fill the blanks as you please. For, even in light of this desperate disappointment, Root still managed to pick up 86 more runs at Adelaide, to go with his 89 at the Gabba - a Test that was launched with his first and only duck of the year (his team-mates, incidentally, have contributed 49 between them).
Given a fair wind, and a few days of recuperation, it's still not inconceivable that Root could find 159 runs in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne and go past Mohammad Yousuf's record tally of runs in a calendar year (although knowing his current luck, he'd doubtless achieve it while still failing to reach that missing hundred).
But is there any hope of him finding a team that can rise to the standards that he's strained to achieve all year? It seems virtually inconceivable. England have already lost seven of their last 10 Tests, in spite of his world-beating purple patch, and without him on deck to guide their final-day fortunes at Adelaide, it's surely asking too much even of their remaining miracle-worker Stokes to marshal such a bereft middle order.
"What you've got to believe is that the rest of the guys are going to fight as hard as he was, and try their best to survive the day tomorrow, to get ourselves out of this game and draw," Lewis said.
"We know it's a big ask for us. However, we're definitely going to put in the effort to fight for what we believe. You've seen it before. Ben's done some really special things in an England shirt, and he will be fighting as hard as he possibly can. Tomorrow, we've got a chance to go and show what we can do."
Today, however, England as a collective finished well short of any sort of serviceable position, for the seventh day out of eight in the series. And Root, as an individual, finished with crown jewels on ice and his most treasured ambition all but unmentionable. Australia has always been a tough place to tour, but rarely has it seemed so cruel.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket