Having just turned 30, he is best placed among current players to threaten the Indian’s aggregate record
Joe Root comes to India after having made nearly 45% of the runs scored by his men in the series win in Sri Lanka. Impressive as that is, what is more so is the manner of his making the runs, especially against spin bowling.
He played the sweep shot to good effect — since the days of Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, the sweep has been seen as the shot to rely on in the subcontinent — but it was his defence that stood out.
The best players do not commit themselves early, play with bat close to the pad, and know that if the ball is turning, it is better to be beaten playing the line that protects their wicket than to chance an edge by reaching for the ball. Despite reports of an ‘English’ type wicket awaiting them in Chennai, it is likely that both teams will play two spinners.
Root will be aware that his team begin as the underdogs, and he won’t mind that. In the last eight years, India have lost just one Test at home while winning 28 out of 34. The series that preceded that run was the one in which Root made his debut as England won a series in India after 28 years.
Root the captain is only one win away from equalling the record of Michael Vaughan (26) as England’s most successful. Root the batsman has climbed to No. 4 on England’s aggregate list and should move up another rung by the end of the series.
Having just turned 30, he is best placed among current players to threaten Sachin Tendulkar’s aggregate record. Not that any of this is likely to be in his mind as he prepares for his 100th Test. At the same stage in his career, and roughly the same age, Tendulkar was ahead by just 102 runs (in 22 fewer innings, though).
It is tempting to see the series as a Root v Kohli battle. The ICC ranks both batsmen in the Top Five, and on the surface they might appear two dissimilar characters. Yet they have more in common than is at once apparent.
Both stand head and shoulders, and maybe waist too, above their colleagues as batsmen. Each has the right mix of grit and sheer cussedness at the crease that sees him making runs even when not at his best.
This is what separates the top rung of players from the rest. On a normal day, however, they are capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the bowlers since they do not need a bad delivery to score from. Both are tough battlers on the field but can be charming and even a bit diffident sometimes off it.
Root’s predecessor, Alastair Cook, who began with a century on debut in Nagpur in 2006-07, gave up the captaincy after England lost 4-0 here four years ago. In between he played a key role in England’s win here, with three centuries.
There is something of Root’s approach to the game that recalls Cooks’ determined style. Successors tend to be influenced by the captains they take over from. Sometimes they are tactically or psychologically alike, and at other times they — often deliberately — cut the umbilical chord and highlight the contrasts.
If teams reflect the character of their captain, as they often do, sometimes the reverse is equally true too. Captains tend to reflect the essence of the team.
In Australia, Kohli spoke of being the “New India”. The impact of India’s victory there was felt in other areas too, with economic advisors and even the Finance Minister herself invoking the new India, or referring to players like Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant to make a point about holding steady before charging ahead. Teams — and economies — need systems that can do both.
England will hope that their team reflects the captain rather than the other way around.
There are weaknesses in batting at the top of the order, and an unsettled spin attack that could make the difference. But, as India showed recently after losing players to injury, inspired teams often play above themselves. Ben Stokes, for example, can be inspirational.
India have the problem of plenty as they settle on their eleven. England will see their policy of rotation being stretched.
Root will be hoping for a more lasting gift than the one India gave Nathan Lyon in Brisbane on the occasion of the off spinner’s 100th Test. India will be happy to give him a signed T-shirt instead.
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