It’s 13 December 2012, it’s midway through the afternoon on the first day of the fourth Test in Nagpur, and England are struggling. They are defending a 2-1 lead in the series, but here, on a fearfully tricky pitch, four India spin bowlers have them tied up in knots. Alastair Cook, Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott are already out, Ian Bell has just gone, and Kevin Pietersen is in the middle, grafting hard, 64 not out from 164 balls on what he would later call “the toughest pitch I ever played on”. And in walks the new No 6, Joe Root, only 21, playing his very first Test. “All right, lad,” he says to Pietersen when he arrives in the middle, through a big, goofy grin, “what’s going on out here?”
You remember what happened next, how Root batted through the rest of that day and on long into the next. He finished up making 73 off 229 balls, and then got 20 more in the second innings as England batted out the draw. It was only just over eight years ago, which doesn’t seem so very long ago, until you look up the scorecard and all of a sudden it’s another era altogether.
Root is the only player from that England team who is in this one too, (although another, Jimmy Anderson, in the squad). The rest have retired already (most because of injury, fatigue and exhaustion). And here’s Root, still only just 30 but an experienced captain and closing in on his 100th Test. This match in Galle is his 98th, so he should reach the landmark in the first game of England’s series against India, in Chennai three weeks from now.
In those last eight years Root has played more Test, ODI and T20 innings (348) than any other player in the world (Virat Kohli is second, no one else comes close). He has faced more balls, too: 22,244, the last 321 of them in these last few days. It has been a treat to watch him at work: he put on an eight-hour-long masterclass in batting against spin bowling, in tricky conditions and against an attack that, as they showed when they rattled through England’s middle and lower orders on the third morning, wasn’t nearly as bad as he made it look the previous day.
When Root is batting, he has a way of making the complicated look easy. All those difficult split-second decisions about whether he ought to come forward or hang back seem as easy and instinctive to him as putting one foot in front of the other to walk forward does to the rest of us. He was either right out of his crease to meet the ball at the earliest opportunity, or well back in it, playing it at the latest moment. He didn’t get confused about what to do, or get caught half-forward. He rotated the strike and made shrewd use of the sweep, too, some hairline fine behind square leg, others walloped away wide through midwicket.
It brought back memories of Nagpur and his Test debut. Partly because of the way he played.
Look back at that match and you can see he’s always known how to bat this way, because they were saying similar things about the way he played in that innings, as if it comes naturally to him (“Like he grew up playing on these pitches,” said Kumar Sangakkara, who did). And partly, too, because it was a reminder of his potential. Which might seem a ridiculous way to talk about a man who has played 98 Tests and made 18 centuries in them, but even now there is an irresistible idea that good as Root is, he could yet be better still.
Because this was a glimpse of the batsman every England fan longs for him to be, the one who regularly plays series-defining innings. There have been a few of those over the years (this was his fourth double century) but still perhaps not so many as he, or England’s supporters, might have liked. Especially in the past year. He averaged 42 in 2020, but with a top score of 68. There is no doubt the captaincy affected his batting (he averages 45 in 45 games as skipper, with seven hundreds, and 52 in 53 games in the ranks, with 11 hundreds). But at the same time, he has been getting better at the rest of it and has steered England to victory in all three series they have played.
Still, there were times last year when Root looked awfully careworn, as if the game and the job were starting to weigh pretty heavily on him. The best sign about the shape he is in right now might just be that he’s back smiling again. He makes the game look like a lark, just as he did on his debut (“I decided from the moment they told me I was playing I was going to enjoy Test cricket whether my career was going to last one match or a hundred,” he wrote later, looking back on that match).
We are only midway through the first Test of what is going to be the toughest year of his career, but there’s promise here, that it may all be starting to come together for him at last.