England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, Lord's July 6, 2017

Root digs deep on captaincy debut as fortune favours the brave

Joe Root battled through a cold to register an unbeaten century on his first day as England captain. It was an unyielding illustration of the drive he will bring to the job
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'Luck was on my side' - Root

At 5.45pm, Joe Root ran a three.

He was 153 not out at the time and had been batting for the best part of five and a half hours.

They weren't even his runs. Moeen Ali had hit the ball - the harsh would say edged the ball - down to third man off Keshav Maharaj and looked happy to accept two.

But Root is hungry. Greedy, even. He is desperate to revive the fortunes of this team - his team - and he pushed for that three as if this was the final over of a T20 game.

It wasn't perhaps the most eye-catching moment of this innings. It didn't draw the applause of the back-foot drive in the final moments of the day that would have pleased any of the greats who have batted at this grand old ground; it wasn't as dismissive as the flick through midwicket from off stump that told Theunis de Bruyn what he thought of his bowling; it wasn't as authoritative as the lofted drive for six off Maharaj.

But as a statement, as an example, it was perfect. Root doesn't want his England team just to flash and flail; he wants them to have the hunger to run threes for one another late in the day. He doesn't want them to be satisfied with a decent day. He wants them to win.

As he put it, revealingly, at the close of play: "It's a good start; but that's all it is: a start."

We probably shouldn't be surprised. He picked a team that might, in some ways, be considered mean. He might have gone for Adil Rashid as his spinner, but he reasoned that Rashid bowls too many four-balls and, with runs hard to come by at times in Test cricket, England couldn't afford such profligacy. Instead he went for Liam Dawson, who will resent every single scored off him.

Defensive? It depends how you define the word. Dawson won't bowl many unplayable balls, but he'll give away nothing and make life much harder for batsmen than England sometimes have of late. There's an aggression of sorts in that.

This was, in many ways, a golden day for Root. A day he'll remember forever and a day he described as "a dream" afterwards.

How could it have been bettered? On his first day as England captain, he won the toss at a full, sun-soaked Lord's, he made his 12th Test century and, in front of his father, grandfather and son, registered the highest score made by an England skipper in his first innings in charge. It's the stuff he would have imagined when playing in the garden as a boy. It doesn't get any better.

Joe Root was dropped in the gully on 16 by JP Duminy © Getty Images

More importantly, he earned his side a strong position. On a much-improved Lord's surface - a surface offering the bowlers enough assistance to keep them (and spectators) interested even with an older ball - he rescued England from a precarious 76 for 4 to a situation where they plundered 175 from 35 overs in the final session. There is a lot of work ahead, but they're in pole position here.

And it's all the more remarkable for the fact that Root was suffering from a cold. His voice was broken and husky after play - all those Churchillian speeches, he joked - and he admitted to waking "groggy" and wearing a jumper throughout a warm day. He actually wore three layers and took on fluids at every opportunity - as he "wanted to sweat the cold out". He looked exhausted by stumps; though not so exhausted he couldn't have run another three.

"There was nothing going to stop me trying to enjoy the day," he said. "It's an amazing opportunity and privilege to be England captain. A little cold wasn't going to get in the way.

"If anything, it may have helped me concentrate out there. I knew I wasn't 100 percent so needed to work really hard to get through it and make the most of the start I got."

None of this should mask the faults in England's performance. They were, yet again, three-down dangerously early - the 23rd time in their 64 most recent Test innings they had lost their third wicket with the score on 55 or fewer - and they were four-down before lunch. Had the substitute fielder, Aiden Markram, been on the fence (as he surely should have been) when Root had 5 and top-edged a hook to long-leg, or JP Duminy, at gully, held on to a relatively simple chance offered by Root on 16, England "might have been bowled out for 200" as Vernon Philander put it. While this was a day to celebrate and enjoy, no dispassionate analysis should ignore the fact that, to some extent, South Africa let England off the hook.

Let's imagine, too, the reaction had Root's pull landed in the hands of Markram. England would have been 24 for 3 and England's new captain might have been branded reckless. On such moments are matches, and sometimes careers, defined.

As it was, nearly everything fell Root's way. The match situation - by the time he came to the crease, less than half-an-hour from the start of play, England had lost both openers and the ball was nipping around devilishly - ruled out (almost) any chance of complacency and South Africa's cricket was, at times, uncharacteristically shoddy.

He admitted he had never previously been reprieved by a spinner bowling a no-ball (as he was here after an apparent stumping on 149) and that, when he top-edged that pull, he had started to walk back to the pavilion.

"I was walking back," he said. "I thought I'd hit it straight to him. And that [the no-ball] has never happened to me against a spinner. It's a nice feeling to get that call back when you know you've made a glaring error.

"But luck was on my side today. It could have been very different but when you do get lives in Test cricket you have to make the most of them. Getting dropped, chipping someone on the boundary and getting a reprieve as well… it all just sort of seemed to fall into place today."

It sure did. And it will have taken the pressure off Root for future innings. There will be no statistics about how long it has been since he has failed to register a century, or anything like that. Other England batsmen have started well - his three immediate predecessors, Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, also recorded centuries in their first Tests as England captain - and that has been no guarantee of future success. But he can, to some extent at least, relax into the job now.

"There was a little bit of relief," he said. "You want to tick it off early. More than anything, I walked out to bat feeling the same as I have done previously for England. I was quite surprised how normal I felt when I got out there. I like to think it's in my nature to go out and see the situation and play accordingly."

Most of all, he set an example for his team.

"Early on as captain you want to try and set the example," he said. "You're trying to get messages across to the guys but you need to show them that you're willing to do those things yourself.

"It is very special. You obviously want to start well as captain and you want to set the example. You've been harping on at the lads about how you want them to approach their cricket and you want to make sure you go out and do exactly as you have been preaching about."

He sure did that.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andries Bester on July 7, 2017, 13:13 GMT

    Thank you JP ...lol giving Root his runs

  • kallappa on July 7, 2017, 11:45 GMT

    English players are so strong in tests more so at home !

  • Jim on July 7, 2017, 10:13 GMT

    @cricfan0826714023. 184 runs all lucky? You do realise that he scored 168 more runs after that drop. How does an ordinary player score 168 runs against one of the world's best attacks? I suggest you stick to T20.

  • Jim on July 7, 2017, 10:05 GMT

    @Andre117. Very strange logic. Since SA bowled and fielded badly, by your own admission, how could 200-8 be considered a fair reflection of play? A team score does not just reflect the batting quality, it reflects a combination of batting, bowling, fielding, umpiring etc. Why not add that the umpire made a mistake and Jennings was unlucky, and that he may have scored 184* himself otherwise.

  • Lester on July 7, 2017, 10:02 GMT

    I would never pick Rashid for a test team. I think many people may mistake short format form for test form. Few wrist spinners have the control required for test cricket. What few people realise is that the increased scoring rates in one day cricket have brought wrist spinners back into the game. If you have to score of every ball, suddenly that odd bad ball counts as variation for batsmen that are looking to score a boundary. When you don't have to score off every ball the risk from the variation goes down. You can play the ball late off the pitch if you haven't picked it, instead of committing aggressively to at a ball you may have miss read. I think these factors mean that wrist spinners have become more economical and strike more in ODIs and T20s while the opposite is true for tests.

  • Lester on July 7, 2017, 9:49 GMT

    Cricket is not just about bowling good deliveries and hitting the ball well. There are a multitude of small things that matter. On a whole England played better cricket and won the day convincingly. SA should look at themselves carefully and play better the next day. They have been good at doing this in the past.

  • Mark on July 7, 2017, 9:17 GMT

    "I wouldn't rate this hundred personally, two dropped chances, dismissals off no balls coupled with poor fielding and poor bowling by Rabada, Morkel and Maharaj made this innings look good on paper when in fact everything has worked in his favour."

    Replace a few names and this could be about Amla in 2012, only I don't remember at the time, people bleating on about luck, more how SA and Amla in particular were so superior.

  • Rob on July 7, 2017, 8:51 GMT

    SHANE-OH - respect to you. A more reasoned response than anyone who compares Joe Root with Shane Watson deserves.

  • Shane on July 7, 2017, 8:34 GMT

    @KEEPCALMANDSLAPTHEUMPIRE - pretty weird logic. Essentially what you're saying is that we should disregard all hundreds because the bowlers obviously didn't bowl well. What happened today was Root out played the opposition - that's they key to success in any sport. That includes taking catches and not bowling no balls - that equates to an inferior execution of skills.

  • Olivier on July 7, 2017, 8:12 GMT

    Can I just raise the fact of Root's conversion rate. 12 hundreds to 27 fifties. In 6 of those hundreds he has been dropped before reaching that milestone. Guy has a terrible lapse in concentration after reaching 50, second only to guys like Shane Watson. I wouldn't rate this hundred personally, two dropped chances, dismissals off no balls coupled with poor fielding and poor bowling by Rabada, Morkel and Maharaj made this innings look good on paper when in fact everything has worked in his favour. Still fair play to him, you've got to put the runs on the board after all regardless of how poorly the opposition is. Wait until the second innings though and his tactics before we start judging his captaincy though.

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