Root lays down a marker like few others
Joe was nervous; oh, so very nervous. His bottom lip quivered, his speech stuttered, his words faded away. Joe had won the toss, chosen to bat and now wanted to get batting. But his life had changed. It was time to talk. For years he watched Alastair Cook mumble through post-toss, pre-match interviews: three of them straight - Sky, the main television rights holder; BBC radio and Channel 5, the free-to-air television highlights folk: that's me by the way and my 5 branded microphone. He watched Cook but he never took it in. Why would he? Such a spotlight is understood only by those upon whom it shines.
Andrew Strauss was good at acting out this obviously irritating routine, Michael Clarke too. MS Dhoni simply refused to do it, for anyone that is bar the main rights holder. You could hardly blame him. Strauss engaged and made his answers plausible. Clarke suggested excitement at anyone being interested in the first place. Graeme Smith was another who understood the mechanics and made it appear as if he had a story to tell. Cook, however, shuddered at the prospect. He turned his head at 45 degrees and his mouth lost words in jumbled phrases that tried to do their duty. Cook didn't/doesn't do the commercial thing by nature. After all, he is a man who farms the land not one who feeds the ego.
First time out, Root was less good even than Cook. OMG it was painful. Like a little boy caught in the headlights, he squinted his eyes and tightened his lips. The sun poured over England's new captain but the duties dimmed its brightness. He listened to the questions but barely heard. Of course it was a chance to display a philosophy, he sort of said that, but really it was about getting stuck in. Then he repeated much the same thing. England lost eight test matches in the last calendar year - not good enough, not nearly. Must do something about it.
Then Joe sat and watched his banker, the ruthlessly in-form Cook, push from his back foot at a wide ball and nick it to the South Africa gloveman. One down, hardly any on the board. Then Keaton Jennings was hit on his pads almost in front of the wicket. Jennings talked to Gary Ballance about a review but Ballance was so nervous he couldn't think straight, thus Jennings wandered off, unbeaten by the replayed technology but judged out by the human eye.
In the dressing-room, England's new captain tucked himself in and tugged on his gloves; he pulled on his helmet, organised its chin-strap and picked up his bat. He headed for the door amid calls of good luck from those in the trenches alongside him. He dropped down two flights of rubber-floored stairs, past paintings of heroes from another age, and in through the Long Room door, where he turned left - head dipped low to avoid the stares of prying members' eyes - and then right through the double doors of the most famous room in cricket. Next, he skipped down four steps, heard his own metal spikes for the first time on the concrete terrace before accelerating to the two little white gates upon which, in red and yellow, is painted MCC. Then his shoes hit the soft turf and around him the sound of the people became muffled and the view of the field and of his opponents mixed into a soft and hazy pastel.
This was the dream. To captain England at Lord's. Joe Root was living the dream. Amongst the 29,000 spectators were other Roots - grandfather, father and son - four generations and one of them, young Alfie, so blissfully unaware of Dad's mission.
He arrived at the wicket at 11.27am with the score 17 for 2. When he left it, seven hours and six minutes later, the score was 357 for 5. Of these runs, Root had 184 and remained unbeaten. Amazing. Not unbelievable, because he will have expected little else of himself, but amazing for sure. It was the highest score by an England captain in his first day on the beat. It was an innings of intense competition, thrilling stroke-play, extraordinary good fortune and memorable effect. It might be the innings that KOs South Africa before the fight truly begins. The pounding he gave the Kagiso Rabada-delivered second new ball was as much mental as physical. Rabada is a tough and athletic kid, a true warrior, but these were heavy blows. Each time he got up from the floor, Root knocked him back down again. In the dying moments of the day he laid into Vernon Philander too, flaying him over extra-cover, as if saying "that, my friend, is for the grief you caused us this morning."
The facts are 366 minutes, 227 balls, 26 fours and a six - all at a strike rate of 81 per 100 balls. The fiction is that he did it at all because the comic books might not have tried to get away with it. The reality is that few people have put out a marker like it. At lunch, England were 82 for 4 and on the ropes themselves. The captain dragged them off it. His first cohort was Ben Stokes, a previous slayer of South African bowlers, before Moeen Ali took over in his magically mysterious way of flash and flay, a way that has driven countless bowlers nuts. Moeen's wrists are like rubber. Setting fields to this idiosyncratic style of shot-making is a nightmare, just ask Dean Elgar.
While interviewing Elgar before play, I noticed a hint of thinning on top. By beer o'clock, he was tearing it out. Root was twice dropped and once stumped by yards off a no-ball. Stokes had his off-dolly touched up by a no-ball too. This is kid's stuff and they know it. South African teams have come careering back before: think the Oval in 2012 after a grim first day. That was the vengeance of the Steyn-led pace attack and the wisdom and patience of Hashim Amla to match. This will need to be something similar.
Meantime, here is a brief synopsis of the Root tour de force....
An awkward beginning as the feet refused their instructions and the bat was beaten by a ball that moved enough to demand the best of technique and mind. Rabada cranked it up, the result of which was a hurried top-edge from Root that flew high to long-leg. English hearts were in mouths, time stood still. Waiting beneath the ball in front of the shiny new Warner stand, was the unknown substitute fielder, Aiden Markram, who in horror realised his mis-judgement and furiously back-pedalled while lifting his arms to the sky in desperation. The ball hung at its apex and then began its downward path, eventually plummeting over his head, out of his reach but still embarrassingly inside the boundary rope for four. Oh, Lady Luck. Missed on 5.
Then a boundary or two, then a front-foot square-drive that went badly wrong...Whooosh! High to gully, to JP Duminy, a fine catcher of cricket balls. No! Through the finger tips it flew! Dropped on 16. Oh, Dame Fortune.
After that it was plain'ish sailing: the old Root with that good head on young shoulders, all balance, class and timing. His back foot play is a treat; his leg-side play punchy, powerful and precise; his off-side play both delicate and accurate. When the hundred came, the crowd stood to prolong its warm and enthusiastic applause. This was their new captain, saving the day in time-honoured fashion; a Yorkshireman to rank with Hutton and others who have worn the English cap and the leadership of its band with glow and a confident gait.
Later came the slo-mo stumping off the no-ball - a surreal moment indeed - and the marvellous array of aggressive shots that added lustre to the day and its achievements. These things crystalised a series of events to boggle the mind and an innings for the ages from the best English batsman of the day at the finest cricket ground in the world.
Am I kidding? No, it all happened.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK