There was a slice of luck. Or two, even three. Every sportsman needs it.
If the top edged pull off Kagiso Rabada had gone straight into the hands of the substitute fielder Aiden Markram, as it should have done if the latter had remained put on the fine leg boundary, Joe Root could have been caught for 5. England would have been struggling at 24 for 3, and the new captain would have been branded brash and reckless. Old timers would have shaken their combined heads and deplored the impetuosity of youth.
Or had Jean-Paul Duminy reacted a bit earlier at gully when he had slashed the same bowler. He was 16 then and had he been caught England would have stumbled to 55 for 4. On the sun-baked morning at Lord’s, South Africa would have had a vice-like grip on the match.
But, Root survived. He lost his top three men for a mere 49. The fourth wicket fell at 76.
Lunch was taken at 82 for 4. Root was still there, but the morning session had not been the ideal for the boyish captain.
Just after bringing up his 50, Root got another reprieve. This time it was a referral to the third umpire that went in his favour. Rabada’s foot grazed the crease, but it was ruled a fair delivery. However, the ball seemed to have gone off the helmet.
Root stayed. And he was looking classier by the minute. The session between lunch and tea brought exactly 100 runs, without further loss. The young captain was on 79. His drives were becoming crisper with every execution, the deflections and steers more delicate and precise.
The third session saw 35 overs. And it witnessed Root’s innings evolving into a gem.
The start after the interval had not been so good. Ben Stokes, another man to have benefited from strokes of fortune, did not quite capitalise his reprieve fully. He got to his half-century, but then snicked the attempted hook off the persevering Rabada to make it 190 for 5.
But by then Root was on 83, being joined by Moeen Ali.
And after that, it was Root all through. The time had come to seize the initiative. It was seized and then some more.
Keshav Maharaj erred in length, pitching short, and the skipper rocked back, driving it square to the boundary. Rabada was steered to the fine boundary twice. A sweep of Maharaj brought up the hundred on captaincy debut. And then he came down the track, celebrating the landmark, disdainfully lofting the spinner for six. Thenuis de Bruyn was flicked with contempt, twice. Maharaj swept twice more.
And then arrived his final stroke of luck. Root was stumped, off what turned out to be a Maharaj no-ball. At that time he was on 149, having plundered 70 after tea.
So, Root continued, in association with Moeen and the hand of fate. Rabada, brandishing the new ball, was driven lazily through the covers and smashed past point in one over. The following Rabada over saw the bowler blasted through the covers again and pulled to the leg boundary. The young fast bowler was being given a lesson in the travails of the game at the highest level, by a master wielder of the willow.
And when Vernon Philander, the man who had done so much damage during the early part of the day, sent down the penultimate over of the day, Root sent him screaming through the covers again. It brought up his 100 in a session. He was still looking as fresh as ever, sprinting down the wicket as if every run was his first and could be his last.
Class had spoken. The captain was unbeaten on 184 at the end of the day. A magnificent edifice of runs had been built through the day on the ruins of the morning. 175 had been scored in the final session.
Root’s innings not only proved to be the difference between the sides. It also underlined his claims as the greatest England batsman of modern times. One can perhaps stretch the ‘modern times’ bit all the way to the day Ken Barrington put his bat away, flashed his wide grin beneath that gigantic nose and hung up his boots. Men from Yorkshire and Essex can fret all they want, some import from South Africa can do the same; Root has to be the best batsman England has produced in the last 50 or so years.
Looking at the score at the end of the day, a very simple summary can be derived from the 87 overs of play.
England batting had the reservoirs of class to buoy the sinking innings. On the other hand, South African bowling simply did not have the necessary depth to sustain the excellent start.
On a pitch that offered the bowlers plenty, most unlike any Lord’s wicket all summer, Philander angled it across Alastair Cook, and then hit the seam with excellent effect to get rid of Keaton Jennings and Johnny Bairstow. But, once the early blows had been stuck, the attack ran out of steam. That is not unnatural for a team of striking inexperience.
On the other hand, not only did Root essay a classic. Stokes drove with plenty of power and confidence, Moeen struck the ball with panache.
The worrying factor for the Proteans perhaps lies in the uneasy feeling that this lack of sufficient substance plagues their batting as well. Whereas with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, followed by Mark Wood and Stokes, with Moeen and Liam Dawson to fall back on, England does appear to possess enough class with the ball as well.
At the end of the first day of the Test series, England is definitely in the driver’s seat, with the reins firm in their hands.