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Monday, March 01, 2021

The Root of India’s misery: England dominate hosts on Day 1 in Chennai

Joe Root showed his mastery over slow bowlers during his 20th hundred and third in as many Tests, becoming the ninth player in the history of the game to score a ton on his 100th appearance.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty |
Updated: February 6, 2021 7:36:57 am
Joe Root in action for England during the first Test against India. (AP)

Towards the fag end of the day, Joe Root swept Ravichandran Ashwin over deep mid-wicket for a six. It was the first sweep that the England captain played in the air all day, but the extra effort resulted in a cramp, forcing Root to go down on the turf.

The England captain was down but he remained unbeaten on 128 on the opening day of the first Test, ready to inflict more damage on India through his purple patch and sublimity. The visitors were sitting pretty at 263/3 on the back of a 200-run partnership between Root and opener Dom Sibley. They would have been in an even better position if after his wonderfully gritty 87, Sibley hadn’t got out in the final over of the day.

A benign pitch notwithstanding, Root gave a batting masterclass, scoring a century in his 100th Test in the process. With three centuries in as many Tests, Root is seriously making up for lost time. On Friday, he became the third England player, after Colin Cowdrey and Alec Stewart, to score a hundred in his 100th Test.

Leading from the front

At 63/2, batting first after winning the toss, England looked vulnerable. Rory Burns threw away the start by trying to play a reverse sweep against Ashwin. Dan Lawrence was done in by a Jasprit Bumrah ripper before opening his account. Virat Kohli deserves praise for bringing back Bumrah to target Lawrence’s crease-bound defence, but he would rue not keeping a fielder at short cover, when Ashwin bowled to Root next over. Just a few overs back, when Shahbaz Nadeem was bowling to Sibley, the India captain had two fielders posted in that region. Root’s leading edge against Ashwin went through the vacant area for a couple. Then, in the absence of a direct hit, a run-out possibility also went abegging.

Root came to this Test on the heels of his 228 and 186 in Sri Lanka. But India is a different kettle of fish and his start at Chepauk was a tad tentative. A fascinating duel ensued post-lunch, when Ishant Sharma hit his straps and asked serious questions. A leg-cutter took the outside edge but didn’t carry to first slip. Root adjusted at the last moment, dropped his wrists and played with soft hands. Even in last-minute adjustments, Root was resplendent.

Ishant was in the middle of an excellent spell and Kohli apparently missed a trick by not giving him at least another over in that spell. But that by no means dented the brilliance of Root’s batting.

The sweep has been the bread-and-butter shot for Root against spin. “For me as a young lad, I was always very small. So it took a long time for me to grow and develop physically. I had to find a way to get the ball off the square against any spinners, in particular, as there was no pace to work with. And sweep was one shot where I could generate the maximum power,” he had said on match eve. On Friday, however, he eschewed it for the first 50 balls of his innings. Only when Washington Sundar was brought into the attack, did Root start unfolding his repertoire.

Smart batting

Root’s game-management was first-class. He saw off Bumrah and Ishant, wore down Ashwin and targeted Nadeem and Sundar – the weak links in the Indian bowling. The two went for 124 runs between them in 32 overs. The majority of those were collected by Root through drives, sweeps and a delectable late cut, arguably the shot of the day. Root swept on line and rolled his wrists, avoiding any risk. Only once did he aim to clear the rope and did that with aplomb.

A single to square-leg off Sundar took Root to his 20th Test hundred. The 30-year-old, who made his debut in India nine years ago, has been converting his half-centuries into three figures for fun this winter. Despite being a part of the ‘Big Four’, Root carried an outsider’s feel in that group. Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson have more Test centuries and 50-plus averages. Until his 97th Test, Root was stuck on 17 hundreds and a sub-50 batting average. He is now edging closer to his peers and, by his own admission, a bit of selfishness has helped.

“In the last two games (in Sri Lanka), in the nicest way possible, I have tried to be a bit more selfish with my batting. It’s a bit more single-minded, knowing if I bat for a long period of time, I make big runs and it’s obviously going to benefit the team,” he had said at the pre-match presser.

This was Alastair Cook’s batting template when he scored 562 runs in four Tests during the series-winning campaign in India in 2012. On current form and approach, Root can be a massive thorn in India’s flesh in 2021.

Selection error

A dodgy knee ruled Axar Patel out of the first Test and India picked Nadeem at Kuldeep Yadav’s expense in a three-pronged spin attack. With depth being the keyword, Sundar’s selection, in the absence of Jadeja and Axar, was understandable. Nadeem wasn’t in the original Test squad but was drafted in from the list of stand-bys. Kuldeep didn’t get a game in Australia and was overlooked again. Kohli spoke about variety in his pre-match presser, which Kuldeep’s chinaman bowling could have offered on a flat surface.

But hindsight is always 20/20 vision. With two off-spinners playing, the Indian team management probably wanted someone who could take the ball away from the right-hander. Or, it might be a case that Kuldeep hasn’t been bowling well enough in the nets to convince the team management. Nadeem’s profligacy and lack of penetration didn’t justify his selection.

Throughout the day, the Chepauk pitch behaved like a sleeping beauty. That Rohit Sharma started shadow batting as soon as stumps were drawn showed the batsman’s keenness to make merry on this surface.

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