On what was a soporific day of Test match cricket on day three at The Oval, England opening batsman Joe Root top scored for the hosts with a valuable innings of 68 to help steer his team towards the follow-on target, in what was the stand-out performance on either side.
For the young Yorkshire tyro, this has been a strange summer in many ways both on and off the field, with the 22-year-old making the headline even before this eagerly anticipated Ashes series had got under way.
Root, of course, was front-page news back in June after being the victim of an alleged unprovoked attack from Australian opener David Warner in the Walkabout bar in Birmingham, following England’s victory over the tourists in the ICC Champions Trophy.
The fresh-faced Englishman had reportedly been thumped on the chin by Warner, and for much of this five-match series the Australia seam attack has been equally aggressive with Root, knowing that with just a handful of Test matches behind him and having been thrust into the opener’s role late on, this was a potential weakness in the home team’s batting lineup.
And apart from his man-of-the-match performance in the second Test at Lord’s, where Root plundered a magnificent second-innings 180, the opener has found it tough going against the tourists’ accurate and skilful pace attack.
Which is why it must have been a huge relief to spend some much-needed and valuable time at the wicket on Day 3 in south London ahead of the return series Down Under later this year, with Root beginning Friday on 13 not out in an unbroken first-wicket partnership with his captain Alastair Cook.
What’s more, the third day in complete contrast to day two was clearly one for batting, with the sun out right from the outset and initially barely a cloud in the sky to help the Aussie pace bowlers move the ball off the wicket or through the air.
And with the new ball having already started to lose some of its shine and bounce after 20 overs on Day 2, Root and Cook were able to get their heads down and do what both men do best, occupy the crease.
In fact, the two batsmen even managed to record their first-ever half-century opening stand in Test cricket during the morning session, before another familiar lazy drive outside off stump by the skipper ended the stand on 68.
However, that setback did little to affect the Yorkshireman, who simply refocussed and started to build another partnership with new man Jonathan Trott, and every so often the packed Oval crowd were treated to one of Root’s now trademark front-foot cover drives that really are a picture.
Unfortunately, though, apart from at the home of cricket that is, they have been few and far between so far this summer, which is a reflection of just how well Australia’s pacemen have bowled at him throughout the series.
Going into this Test, Root had managed knocks of 30, 5, 6, 180, 8, 13 not out, 16 and 2, and those scores really would have looked like an overseas telephone number had either wicketkeeper Brad Haddin or first slip Michael Clarke snared an easy offering behind the wicket when he was still in single figures in his second innings at Lord’s.
And that is because the tourists have been quick to work out that Root loves to predominantly stay on the back foot when facing the pacemen, ever reluctant to come forward, even at the best of times.
In particular, Australia seamer Peter Siddle has appeared to have Root’s number, especially when going wide of the crease to angle the ball in at the stumps, before just getting it to then move away a fraction to catch his outside edge on its way through to the wicketkeeper, as we saw in his first-innings dismissals’ at both Old Trafford and Chester-le-Street.
But Root appeared wise to that trick both on Thursday evening, and throughout his 184-ball stay at the crease on Friday, with his judgement of what to leave and what to play outside off stump much improved, while his powers of concentration have already, even in his short Test career, been there for all to see.
There is still a little problem there, which you can be sure Michael Clarke and the Australian think tank will be looking to continue exploiting when they get Down Under, however, this knock of 68 will have done Root the power of good heading into that return five-match series, starting in November.
And like with many of the England top-order batsmen, the faster and bouncier pitches in Australia should actually suit Root’s game more, although he will still need to show discretion as to what to leave and what to play early on in his innings.
Either way, though, a second Test fifty to go with his two centuries is a nice way to cap off a memorable debut Ashes series for young Joe, who has amassed an impressive aggregate of 328 runs at an average of 41 so far, with the promise of more to come Down Under.
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