“Yes, it is hard to believe that they are 2-1 up. The manner in which India has struck back has made quite an impact”
In one word, Joe Root looked apprehensive.
His stubble has almost disappeared, and along with it has vanished much of the affability that accompanied him to the press conferences.
In his boyish face, the beginnings of a beard looked like a desperate attempt to prevent the cashier from asking for his id while handing over the beer cans. But as he faced the press conference on the eve of the Southampton Test, his face had a careworn look with an ageing effect more than several five o’clock shadows put together.
Generally, throughout the tour. there have been smiles accompanying the answers thrown at him by the media. When questions asked to be met with a staunch straight bat, Root had defended with elegance and panache. For example when Geoff Boycott had got stuck into Adil Rashid. And when he needed to be forceful in his responses, he had been so without losing his charm. As he did when harangued about the dressing room reaction to the return of Ben Stokes. Evasions were also managed with the air of an endearing yet clever lad skilled at playing truant. For example when asked about the absence of Moeen Ali from the line-up: “Yes, he has had an excellent match, too bad it was against Yorkshire..”
However, the 2-1 lead in the series notwithstanding, the rather humiliating loss at Trent Bridge seems to have unleashed too many queries for his liking. Especially about the failing top order. As Root sat in front of the pressmen on the eve of the Southampton Test, the perpetual smile remained conspicuous by its absence. A couple of hints, that was all that we got to see of it.
Perhaps it was a reaction to the not too flattering things that have been written about him and the team after the Nottingham defeat, or perhaps it was just that he was preoccupied with some other thoughts. But the stubborn stiffness around the lips was quite prominent.
There were difficult questions to field as well. And Root knew there would be.
The batting at the top of the order has been quite shambolic. Especially the opening batsmen have continued to disappoint, including the ever-reliable Alastair Cook.
Yet, no changes have been made at the top. Keaton Jennings, who has managed just one fifty in 16 innings after his Test debut in late 2016, and averages 23 overall (19 if we discount the debut with that century) has retained his place.
The man who has been dropped is young Ollie Pope, whose brief forays at the wicket have looked rather promising. The man who comes in for Pope is Moeen Ali. Of course, after the double hundred and eight wickets in Scarborough, Moeen’s return can hardly raise any eyebrows, but the replacement is anything but like for like. Replacing a specialist batsman from a floundering top order by adding an off-spinning all-rounder in his place is rather surprising to say the least.
Yes, Root did mention that it was done with the balance of the team in mind. With Stokes not yet back in his best bowling groove, Moeen’s off-breaks can be used as back-up. The fact that the wicket here aids spinners as the match progresses towards the final days also makes the Moeen-Rashid duo a handy option. Yet, replacing a specialist batsman at No 4 and appending the fast-medium component of an all-rounder with an off-spinner who will bat at No 7 is rather difficult to explain.
But where Root really struggled with explanations was about the management’s ploy of convincing Ben Stokes to stand in the slips. The slip cordon will now consist of Cook, Root and Stokes. Another role for Jennings thrown out of the window, by the way.
“We need to start taking the chances,” Root explained. “It’s been tough for the guys in there and we are the most experienced, we have fielded there a lot before. The hardest thing to get your head around in Test cricket is dealing with when you’ve dropped one. It’s easier to ask experienced guys who have done that a lot more to handle it better.”
While specialists in the slips is not a novel concept, the line of thought linking experience with the art of dealing with dropped chances seems to be quite a complex one.
Root has said a lot of things this summer, including philosophical nuggets about cricket and the social media effect. A lot of them have not really been easy to decode. The connection between experience and the ability to deal with dropped catches is one of them.
And now, with the quotes stripped off the accompanying grace and smiles, it does give an indication that the England captain is under pressure after the Trent Bridge Test. So is the team, under pressure to perform.
Yes, it is hard to believe that they are 2-1 up. The manner in which India has struck back has made quite an impact.