“You look down, they know you’re lying; up, they know you don’t know the truth,” starts Brad Pitt as he talks Matt Damon through the intricacies of conversing with a mark in Ocean’s Eleven. “Don’t use seven words when four will do. Don’t shift your weight, look always at your mark but don’t stare; be specific but not memorable; be funny but don’t make him laugh. He’s got to like you then forget you the moment you’ve left his side.”
The most impressive thing about this contradiction-riddled monologue is it makes perfect sense. Misdirection is rooted in direction. In levelling this ODI series with an impressive 86-run win against a high-quality India team, England did just that. It was not the blistering dominance of Jos Buttler or the barbaric new-ball attack of Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy. It was Joe Root, England’s underwhelming enabler, who set them up for a series-decider in Leeds.
In an era of high strike-rates, Root is the one to give others the tools to do their jobs with little of the credit, like the attendant at B&Q that arms you with equipment for a weekend of DIY and tips for a lifetime of passing them off as your own. The opener who has to gee the crowd up for the headline acts. Really – who remembers a good warm-up? And when was the last time you tipped a shopping attendant?
Since the 2015 World Cup, Root has the lowest strike-rate of England’s eight main batsmen. Four of his hundreds between now and then have come when a teammate has got one in the same innings. Each time, they’ve been the rabbit and Root has been the turtle. He picks off singles better than most, so when the guy at the other end is seeing it big, all Root focusses on is keeping him happy with the strike and willing legs between the wickets. Maybe the odd boundary to allow some rest from time to time.
But then there are the four hundreds scored in that time when no one else came close to his contributions. Not to mention the fact that during this period Root has almost 500 more ODI runs than any of his compatriots. On Saturday (July 14), the predominantly Indian crowd came to Lord’s to watch Buttler, Kohli, Roy, Rohit, Bairstow and Dhoni. And Root ended up stealing the show with the same routine he has been trotting out for years.
It is one he has perfected, with a precision of craft that elicits appreciation in hindsight rather than adulation while he puts it together. Within his 113 – the first 100 coming off 109 balls – were examples of nuance that are unlikely to go out of favour in 50-over cricket during his lifetime. Only four of his 12 ODI hundreds have been scored off fewer than 100 balls.
He arrived to a solid platform of 69 for 1 in the 11th over, but appreciated it was not to be taken for granted. Kuldeep Yadav was cashing in some credit in the bank to nab Jonny Bairstow, force Jason Roy to hit the best shot to a fielder at midwicket the game has seen and entice Eoin Morgan to hit a full toss straight to Shikhar Dhawan in the deep. By this point, Root already had fifty – 56 deliveries – and sought to tick over.
When David Willey came to the crease with 50 balls of the innings remaining, he recognised the left-hander was England’s best hope of a winning total. But he also knew, after 31.3 overs in the middle, that Willey would need time get to grips with this pitch. For the start of their partnership, Root took the lead, striking 10 of the 12 runs that came off the 43rd, Kuldeep’s ninth over: a bowler he had fallen to twice across three balls and two formats in the last 11 days.
Soon, Willey found his range, taking Siddath Kaul apart in the 46th over with two fours, a six and a total of 17. So Root took on a supplementary role, taking nine of 24 balls remaining, dotting up just twice, and scoring 15, including a single that took him to three figures and the six that took England past 300. Willey, meanwhile, registered his maiden ODI fifty from 30 balls as England closed on 322 for 7. Root, chasing a final single for Willey, was run out off the last ball. His assistance to the all-rounder extended into the post-match press conference: “Dave came in and took the pressure off me and put it straight back on the Indian team.”
There’s an understated defiance to Root that, all told, is not so reliant on proving people wrong because, well, how many could have doubted him? Instead, it seems to centre around his degree of self-worth. He has this rare quality of being governed by self-worth, which is borderline catastrophic as an adolescent but continues to work for him. Even a run of scores against India of 0, 9 and 3, losing his place among them, has not caused introspection or indecision. A game that relies so much on clarity cannot afford to entertain such thoughts. He may need to play catch-up in Twenty20, but rarely has his ODI role been more certain as it was on this day. While so often underappreciated, here was another day that allowed him to be the main event.
He is now level with Marcus Trescothick on the hundred count. No Englishman has more than their 12 and none have assisted others more with their batting than Root. Somehow, he has found a selfless edge to a selfish pursuit. Though he will continue his trope of being unmemorable, he’ll never be a forgotten man in England’s ODI team.
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