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Analysis

Joe Root makes the extraordinary look simple in latest waltz into record books

Captain's stunning vein of form gives England the perfect first two days of India campaign

George Dobell
George Dobell
06-Feb-2021
Just as Torvill and Dean were once responsible for dozens of broken ankles, you wonder if Joe Root will similarly delude another generation.
Let's be clear: nobody is suggesting Torvill and Dean used their cover as ice dancers to pursue shadow careers as enforcers for the criminal underworld. They never actually broke anyone's bones.
No, the point is, they were so good at what they did, they made it appear simple. And, as every performance seemed to be on TV at the time, it was only to be expected that a generation of admirers would attempt to follow in their footsteps. They soon discovered two things: ice is really quite slippery. And Torvill and Dean were really very good at something that is monstrously difficult.
There should be few broken ankles as people attempt to emulate Root. But it is possible that the ease with which he has made runs in recent days could seduce people into underestimating the significant of his achievements. There's been a lot of cricket played on a lot of flat wickets over the years. Very rarely has anyone scored as many runs as this.
Indeed, Channel 4's coverage should probably come with a warning. Figures published by The Telegraph suggest that the first day's peak viewing figure was around double that which might have been expected if it was shown behind a paywall, and there is a danger those seeing the sport for the first time will presume that watching England is always like this. As those with longer memories can tell them, it really isn't.
Let's put this in perspective: the last time an England player scored at least 150 in three successive Tests - it was Wally Hammond in 1929, since you ask - there was unrest in the Middle East, risk of civil war in Afghanistan and the second wave of a virus was killing an alarming number of people. Imagine living through times like that.
But Root is reaching heights that very few batsmen - especially England batsmen - have previously scaled. Indeed, it is telling that, over the last few weeks, he has surpassed the run-scoring records of a quartet of greats: Geoff Boycott, David Gower, Kevin Pietersen and, on the second day of this match, Alec Stewart. He has played fewer games than any of them and averaged more than all. Root deserves his place among them.
Hammond looms like a giant in England's Test records, but Root is starting to challenge him, too. Hammond is now the only England player to have scored more double-centuries at Test level than Root (Hammond made seven; Root has five though, had he not been run-out in Galle on 186 a couple of weeks ago, he would surely have just recorded his third in succession) while Hammond and Gooch are the only England players other than Root (who has scored 644 runs from three-and-a-half Tests - five innings - this year) to have scored more than 600 runs in three successive Tests. Kumar Sangakkara is the only other man in Test history to score 180 (or more) in three successive Tests.
And before anyone attempts to minimise the achievements, consider this: it was the first double-century by a visiting batsman in India since 2010 - when Brendon McCullum made 225 in Hyderabad - and the first by an England batsman since Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting both did so in Chennai in 1985. It was also the first double-century anywhere against India since McCullum made 302 against them in Wellington in 2014. Whichever way you look at it, Root's achievements are significant.
It does have to be acknowledged that he has batted on pretty flat wickets over these past few weeks. And it does have to be acknowledged that winning the toss in this match was disproportionately important. India may well have made England's bowlers suffer in similar fashion had they had first use of the pitch.
But this wicket is no flatter than those seen routinely in India or New Zealand and, nicely though it played on day one, there was more encouragement for the bowlers on day two. Yes, the worst of the rough is more relevant to left-handers, but there was reverse for the seamers and some bounce and turn for the spinners. Just because Root made it look easy doesn't mean it was.
It was a point made by Ben Stokes at the close of play. "There's been spin, bounce and reverse," he said. "A lot of balls have spat out of the rough. We've just played really well. You've got to give us credit there.
"Joe makes us all feel pretty rubbish with how easy he makes batting look. He's in phenomenal form and making things look very, very easy. The way he plays spin - dominates spin - is incredible to watch. I don't think we've had an England batsman ever play spin the way he does. He's got an answer and an option for everything."
Stokes also dismissed the idea that England might have declared before the close on day two.
"There was no thought whatsoever of a declaration tonight," he said. "That would be stupid. If we can bat for another hour in the morning, we'll be very happy with that."
There's logic in that. Batting will only become more difficult as the game wears on so it will prove much easier to score runs now. It will be the first time they have chosen to bat into the third day of a Test (in a game unaffected by the weather) since the Lahore Test of 2000. And, at 180 overs, it is already England's longest Test innings since the Abu Dhabi Test of 2015 when they came within an ace of inflicting a rare defeat upon Pakistan in the UAE.
They can inflict some more pain on the India team, too. The fielding wilted a little on the second day - Rohit Sharma's dropped catch, at mid-on, providing the nadir - and none of them will relish pulling on their boots for a seventh successive session in the field. Jasprit Bumrah, for example, has already bowled more overs than ever before his Test career and more than he has managed in a first-class innings since 2014. It may be relevant that he played only one more match in the next 16 months as injury intervened.
Might there be an element of negativity about this tactic? It would be understandable. England have twice scored 500 in the first innings of a Test only to lose the game, after all. The most recent occasion, during the 2006-07 Ashes, saw them declare, six down, on 551. It's a result that is scarred on the minds of England supporters of a certain vintage.
Most of all, though, they are learning from experience. They scored 477 on this very ground the last time they were here. And they still went on to lose by an innings. They are learning - most of all Root is learning - about the need for ruthlessness in such circumstances. Yes, he's made a technical change or two to his batting - most noticeably, he is going back and across rather than simply back and has improved balance as a consequence - but it seems the biggest change may be mental. Put simply, he just looks ferociously hungry for runs and utterly determined to take every opportunity he is given. It's made England look a far stronger side.
There is, no doubt, hard work in store for England bowlers over the next few days. Only once since they won in Kolkata in 2012, have they managed to take 20 wickets in a match in India (in Viskhapatnam, in 2016). But Root has earned England a chance - an outside chance, perhaps - to push for victory. They couldn't have wished for a better first two days of the series.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo