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England have established a first-innings lead of 345 by the end of day two. Even writing it out requires a break between words to double-check.
The oddity and audacity that this side hold such a dominant position so early against that India. A score of 423 for eight feels just as odd, as does the fact that, for the first time since Dunedin in 2013, all of England’s top four made it past fifty. And that included one from Steven Finn at No 3 as nightwatchman.
But the comfort of familiarity is not hard to find. It is there sat at No 4 on the scorecard, with 121 next to his name. Joe Root’s purple 2021 now has another signpost. To Galle (twice), Chennai, Nottingham and Lord’s now comes Headingley. Across a surreal couple of days, Root’s brilliance was the grounding.
There was an inevitability about this hundred: the preceding five this calendar year, the touch shown throughout this series alone, this being his home ground, and, of course, India being rumbled out for just 78 the day before. Because cricket’s the kind of game where misery attracts misery, and there would be nothing more miserable for Virat Kohli than seeing his opposite number thrive – again – and his side run ragged for 129 overs, and counting.
But also because for the first time in a while, he arrived to the crease with the ship steady. There was no wreckage to pick through, no salvage operation to instigate. Granted, there was still plenty to do. Conditions suited bowling more than they did on the afternoon of day one, when India’s bowlers were surprised into action when their batters lasted just 40.4 overs after going first.
Mohammed Shami had settled into a familiar groove, energetic through the crease and smart enough with his lengths and movement to keep Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns in check. The pair had started with 60 and 52 respectively, though Burns would only add nine to that when Shami, from around the wicket, curved one in with the arm before seam took it further into the left-hander and into the very top of his off stump.
Hameed only managed eight more though did not seem too perturbed by that, testing out the middle of his bat for about an hour-and-a-half with every forward defence. It’s what he does, why he is adored and exactly why he was raised so highly after those first three Tests at the end of 2016. Unfortunately for him, the last of his 29 deliveries spent on 68 turned sharply passed his outside edge and clipped his off stump.
With that, Ravi Jadeja had his first wicket of the series and in walked Root, scoreboard 159 for two. Of course, the situation could have been sweeter, and perhaps England should have been more than 81 ahead at the time. No matter, thought Root, and set about enhancing that lead to 305 before he left.
The new thing to do with Root hundreds is to look for the extras. The flourishes during the routine to ensure it is not so monotonous. Obviously batting, cricket, Test cricket etcetera are very serious things, and Root is a very serious do-er of those things. But every now and again, you can tell he’s got a bit in there for him, and invariably for us, too.
There was a wristy lasso through mid-wicket when Jadeja dropped his length back, with Root off his feet at the moment of contact. Then there was the back foot drive for four off his 57th delivery that took him past 50. A reverse sweep late into the day took him to 500 runs in this series alone. To be honest, the full ball pinged through wide mid-on for the 12th four that took him to career century No 23 – 124 balls – was mundane by comparison. His eventual dismissal - bowled by an inducker from Jasprit Bumrah - jarred because of how comfortable the previous 165 deliveries had felt.
Mundane and comfort are allies in this world. And as backhanded a segue this may be to talk about Dawid Malan’s return to Test cricket, it should not discredit the look or feel of his 70, even if there was a simplicity to them. The strengths that got him into the team in the first place are still intact: the strong square game, tidy hands through the ball and his short-ball prowess. The weaknesses, such as the poor footwork and straight front leg that saw him canned after 15 caps in 2018 have been rectified, for the time being at least.
These were useful runs in every sense, not just as an accompaniment to Root’s in a 139-run stand for the third wicket, but to register a new career-best in home conditions. When he was given the elbow three years ago, national selector Ed Smith said he was regarded as something of an overseas specialist. The 140 at the Waca in the 2017/18 Ashes – with 54 in the second innings – was evidence supporting this assertion.
As time went on, though, and Malan was overlooked for one away series after another, it revealed itself to be an excuse, which is what plenty suspected at the time. Now, he is back in and back in possession, after indulging international cricket in the other formats, with an Ashes on the horizon and evidently a better gauge on what is expected of him, and indeed how much this team needs him.
His demise was the most unfortunate of the eight India managed on Thursday. A flick down the leg – which could have been played with more gusto – was only revealed as a nick through to Rishabh Pant on DRS review to take the players in for tea.
The rest of the card was understandably bitty. A 52 stand between Root and Jonny Bairstow at the start of the third session was lapped up by the Western Terrace which was scuppered when the latter edged low to Kohli’s left at first slip for 29. Then Jos Buttler tamely flicked to Ishant Sharma for seven. The only form of joy to be had was Shami’s, with three deserved wickets to his name (currently for 87).
There was a collapse of sorts: four wickets falling for just 33 runs, then 35 added between Craig Overton and Sam Curran. Overton remains, 24 not out, along with Ollie Robinson, yet to get off the mark. What work they do with the bat on Friday morning will no doubt be hurried and brisk, whether dismissed or not. The mornings have been the best times to bowl, and with this eye-watering lead, there is no need to delay getting into India a second time around.