There was a moment as he left the field following his latest epic innings in which Joe Root was in the company of Virat Kohli – and there was little doubting that is where he belongs once more.
So imperious has been the form of England captain’s this past month that he has returned to the ranks of the very best batsmen in the world, a place his Indian counterpart Kohli, the man whose handshake acknowledged the quality of a nine-hour masterclass, has dwelt for the past decade.
In skipping down the pitch to caress a delivery from Ravichandran Ashwin over long-on for six shortly before tea, Root moved to 201 not out, a total that guaranteed he would finish his 100th Test with an average more than 50 – the mark recognised as separating the great batsmen from the mere good.
Joe Root hit a superb double century on day two in India as England took control of the Test
The England captain now has the highest innings of any player in their 100th Test match
Root hit a magnificent six to bring up the half century in the second session of the day
On the evidence presented so far, this could be the year of Root’s career, and it is already making his personal travails of 2020 feel like a distant memory. From the outset, the Test calendar looked unforgiving with its relentless schedule and the relentless quality of the opposition – nine matches against current World Test Championship leaders India sandwiching two against the No 1-ranked team New Zealand providing an oversized hors d’oeuvres to next winter’s Ashes.
But Root’s response to the challenge has been dauntless. Five innings ago, he was eighth on England’s list of Test run scorers, yet shortly before Shahbaz Nadeem dismissed him for 218 with a delivery that slid past the inside edge, he had snuck past Alec Stewart in third. If he retains such single-mindedness to his own game, he will have become only the second Englishman behind Sir Alastair Cook to reach 9,000 well before he turns 31 on the penultimate day of 2021.
Seldom did he look in trouble such is his mastery of subcontinental conditions. On Indian soil, his record is comparable to that of Kohli, who averages 68, and he adapted his game seamlessly from Sri Lanka, where he recently ended a 14-month drought without a hundred with scores of 186 and 228 in a 2-0 series win.
In Galle, he swept the Sri Lankan spinners to distraction but here, recognising the extra bounce a generally true Chennai pitch offered, it was with an expanded range of stroke that his blade did its damage during stands of 124 and 86 with returning middle-order duo of Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope.
The effortlessness of his straight hit off Ashwin was a feature of his batting, as was improvisation – none better than the reverse dink to the third man rope that saw him move past Inzamam-ul-Haq for the highest score of a player celebrating a century of caps – and a policy of working the angles by using the depth of the crease.
Ben Stokes survived an early yorker to hit an attacking half-century before lunch
International cricket’s saturated schedule offers little respite, but Root hopped off the treadmill and onto a Peloton during last autumn’s lockdown. He attributes his recent marathon knocks to a sustained fitness regime. Healthy body, healthy mind.
He is thinking more clearly at the crease, having unearthed a tendency to get stuck in a one-day tempo when transferring to Test cricket during extensive pre-Christmas analysis of his dip in form.
Some of that was a legacy of former coach Trevor Bayliss’ belief that the team needed to follow an attacking template. As if to emphasise that a more pragmatic approach suits Root better, he went up and down the gears: having dominated the scoring in partnership with the indomitable Dom Sibley on day one, he played second fiddle to Stokes, who contributed 63 of the morning session’s 92 runs, and then struck 53 off 76 balls himself in the afternoon.
The final hour and a quarter before lunch proved the pivotal period, reinforcing England’s dominance of the previous day and ensuring that momentum would be sustained into the third.
Just four runs had come in the previous five overs when Stokes began a flurry of boundaries with a slog sweep off Ashwin. The bravado belied the testing conditions at the start of the second morning as a refreshed Jasprit Bumrah charged in and Ashwin, one bowler who has the wood over him in Test cricket, wheeled away with a newish ball.
The pair hit a 92 partnership as Stokes his four back-to-back boundaries in his first innings since August
Stokes did well to jab down on a Bumrah yorker on nought and showed modest ambition during the initial stages of a first first-class innings for six months – a serene straight stroke over the ropes off Ashwin that took him into double figures aside.
It was once the change bowlers were introduced that he really made hay. Shahbaz Nadeem had a spiteful piece of rough to aim at outside the left-hander’s off-stump but recognising the perils it might cause Stokes typically launched the counter-attack, back-to-back reverse sweeps taking him to a 73-ball 50.
There was no hiding that India were flustered as, within the space of five deliveries they burnt two reviews: first, in going for a leg-before challenge when Stokes, on 31, was struck on the glove sweeping Ashwin; next over when the slow left-armer Nadeem struck Root on the knee roll with a ball heading over the top.
Stokes had not added to his score when Ashwin put down a stinging return chance during a passage of play that was brimful of drama. Down the other end, a powerful sweep off Nadeem burst through the hands of Cheteshwar Pujara at midwicket.
Then, immediately after congratulating Root on his 150, brought up via a checked drive into the covers for a single, Stokes was back down on one knee, hauling Nadeem into the vacant stands at deep midwicket.
Root eventually went for 218 after overtaking Alec Stewart into third place on England’s Test run charts
England’s captain and his deputy were chuckling mid-pitch again during the next over when Stokes sold his lifelong friend down the Ganges with a misjudged single. Root was spared yet another run out dismissal by a shocking throw from Washington Sundar.
India’s problem was that they lost control whenever Nadeem, drafted in for a second Test appearance due to injury to Ravindra Jadeja, or fellow spinner Washington were called upon.
At times they leaked five runs an over, forcing Kohli to take the defensive measure of posting sweepers and it was a sign of his displeasure that Rohit Sharma’s part-time offies were given an airing before tea.
By that point, Stokes had holed out off Nadeem and Pope, who had a right to a plea of rustiness following a lay-off for shoulder surgery, was half a dozen overs shy of being dismissed himself.
England are now in a commanding position with the tourists at 555-8 at stumps on day two
Having survived another desperate DRS call by the Indians – when his forearm deflected a delivery to leg gully – he was pinned by Ashwin’s arm ball.
Root was sixth out in the next over with the score on 477 – the same tally England made in an innings defeat on the same ground four years ago.
This time, though, despite a late burst of high quality reverse swing by Ishant Sharma that accounted for Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer in consecutive balls, there was power to add and the day belonged to England – and their truly world-class leader.
Stokes joked after day two that Root’s standard of batting was ‘making him feel rubbish’