Joe Root’s bat has smiled again……
The burden of carrying a whole nation’s expectations, like every coin, has two sides. If you perform well enough, you won’t feel a lighter thing than that in the whole world but in case your form decides to desert you then the very same lightweight will feel like the weight of the whole world ready to crush you beneath its enormity. Though this analogy is true for almost every sport, it is particularly truer for our cricketing galore. Almost every cricket nation has a player who carries upon his shoulders the burden of entire country’s expectations and most renowned among those players is the famed quartet known as the ‘Fab Four’ in modern-day cricket.
While Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith (before that Newlands saga) have gone a level up in the last two years with their on-field exploits, Joe Root seemed to have left behind in a spate of half-centuries which were taking him almost nowhere- he was failing to convert them into hundreds and his team was failing to capitalize on small moments of successes. If we look at the period from November 2016 (when England toured India) to present, Root’s 18 half-centuries stand out among all the batsmen by some distance with Dimuth Karunaratne’s 12 fifty-plus scores coming second in the tally.
Also read: Mark ‘Express’ Wood rocks West Indies
In the same period, Kohli has scored 12 hundreds, Cheteshwar Pujara has 10, Dean Elgar has 7 and Smith had already 8 hundreds in his kitty before getting banned. Where does Root’s tally stand? The answer is five hundreds. Surely, it was imperative that England’s best batsman was under the pump to rediscover his century-making penchant which would help his as well as his team’s cause.
The pressure and scrutiny increased many-fold when West Indies convincingly beat the tourists in the first two Tests of the ongoing series. To add to the ignominy, his failure in the first Test in Barbados meant that his Test average fell below 50 for the first time since 2014. St. Lucia was the last stop in this Calypso sojourn and this had to be the redemption halt. Root showed his gritty character to make sure that he didn’t return empty-handed from an otherwise ignominious tour.
England were placed quite comfortably at 73 for the loss of only Rory Burns, with a lead of 123 runs from the first innings already in the bank, when a terribly out-of-form Keaton Jennings missed a mediocre ‘on-the-pads’ delivery which ricocheted on to the stumps to bring an end to his travails at the crease and marked the arrival of English captain at the crease. The English skipper started cautiously and played second fiddle to a more fluent Joe Denly who registered his maiden Test half-century before getting dismissed for a well-made 69.
By the time Denly was dismissed, English skipper had found his mojo back but the struggle was still there as Jos Buttler dominated the scoring in their 107-run stand for the fourth wicket. This is the thing about great players; they might not be at their sublime best but they find a way to grind and stay there at the crease and when they have spent enough time in the middle, runs automatically start to flow. What Root needed to do was to just survive at the crease and his associations with Denly and Buttler ensured that pressure of scoring was taken off him and he had the opportunity to pace his inning as he liked.
Right through his inning, Root not only had to conquer his inner demons but also had to cope with the firing West Indian fast bowlers who besides targeting him with the red cherry also targeted him with insinuations. There were some verbal exchanges between Root and Shanon Gabriel but Root, in his post-day press conference, decided not to bring them off-field- another example of the sportsman he is and the spirit with which he plays the game.
“Sometimes people say things on the field that they might regret, but they should stay on the field,” Root said.
“It’s Test cricket and he’s an emotional guy trying to do everything he can to win a Test match. He’s a good guy who plays hard cricket and is proud to be in the position he is. The battle was a good contest, he’s had a wonderful series and he should be proud.”
Once Buttler got out to a peach of a delivery from Kemar Roach which crashed into his stumps, Root took the charge while Stokes bid his time in settling down. Root’s perseverance and grit throughout the day were finally rewarded in what was the seventh over before the close of the day’s play when he hit an Alzarri Joseph full toss straight down the ground to bring up his 16th Test ton which also took his average beyond 50 once again. The hard scrap paid off. It had to pay off since this inning had been the most self-controlled inning of his; with the lowest boundary percentage of 4.80% among all his centuries.
“It was a good hard scrap. But it was really enjoyable because sometimes, when things aren’t quite happening for you, you think you’re battling a little bit. To come out the other side is really pleasing,” said Root in the post-day presser.
With just the two centuries in almost two years (prior to the Oval Hundred), Root who was believed to have become rusty is now coming back into the century churning mode as this was his third century in his last seven Tests. Form slumps and purple patches are parts of the life of a sportsperson, but it is the mental fortitude, desire to succeed and stubbornness of not giving up when the odds are not in favor; which defines the greatness of a sportsperson. Root has conquered his demons and hopefully, now, he will put his prodigious abilities to full use.
With Root unbeaten on 111 and Stokes not-out on 29 and lead already at 448, England are well and truly in the driver’s seat and it will take some special effort by West Indians to drag this game into the fifth day.