Joe Root dodges South African bullets to nail brilliant century

England in strong position as Ben Stokes also makes impact at Wanderers

England’s Joe Root celebrates after scoring a century on day two of the third Test   at Wanderers Stadium  in Johannesburg.  Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

England’s Joe Root celebrates after scoring a century on day two of the third Test at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

 

Third test, day two: South Africa 313 lead England 238-5 by 75 runs

There is a scene in the final series of Blackadder where the hapless Baldrick is in a trench dugout carefully carving his name on a bullet.

When, inevitably, Blackadder asks what he is doing, there is a simple logic to his answer. “You know they say that somewhere there’s a bullet with your name on it,” he explains, “well, I thought if I owned the bullet ?”

So far this Test match has been one of batsmen dodging bullets. Every single delivery sent down by the pacemen has had a batsman’s name on it. No one has been able to say with any degree of conviction that they have absolutely been in and on top of the conditions. In such circumstance there are two approaches. The first says guts it out, dig in as the phrase has it, and hope the storm can be weathered. The other says that sooner or later your number will be up, so better make the most of it and chance the arm while you can. Even Nick Compton, for whom obduracy might be a middle name, took that view.

Yet until Joe Root and Ben Stokes came together less than an hour before tea, a total of 14 wickets had fallen and no one had managed to score more than Dean Elgar’s gritty 46. Replying to South Africa’s first innings 313, way too many for the conditions, England had slumped to 91 for four. Just an hour and a quarter later, when Stokes’s leading edge was gratefully taken by the bowler Morne Morkel, the board read 202 for five, the fifth-wicket partnership of 111 coming from 97 balls only. Suddenly the South African bowling, which, led by the excellent Kagiso Rabada, had threatened to overrun the England batting, looked vulnerable.

Root went on to play what has to be the finest innings of his career, his ninth Test century arriving with a textbook elbow high cover drive, the 16th boundary of his innings. It was a technical masterpiece, his judgment of length and line impeccable, his capacity not just to put away the bad ball but to actually create bad balls from the pressure of his presence at the crease an object lesson in how to seize the initiative and turn things round for the team.

Boundaries came all round the wicket. He pulled with confidence, deflationary for fast bowlers who feel they have the edge, drove precisely to both sides and cut hard and occasionally up and over. There was, to this observer’s eye, no discernible chance offered to bowlers, his only real discomfort, apart from the cramp in his calf, coming with some madcap running between the wickets that really was seat-of-the-pants stuff; and one straight drive from Stokes that obliterated the wicket at the other end that had the bowler Morkel not trimmed his fingernails enough to miss the ball by a smidgeon, would have seen him out of his ground.

By the time the billowing highveld storm clouds became too overwhelming to continue, Root had made an unbeaten 106 from 131 balls, with one more boundary added, and another burgeoning partnership, this time with Jonny Bairstow and already worth 36 from six overs. At 238 for five, England are still adrift by 75 runs so there is much work still to do for them but they are well and truly in the game now.

Stokes, the heartbeat at the centre of the England team, was the perfect foil for Root. In allowing him the freedom to play in the manner that he does, Ian Botham has said, he has to be given the licence to fail as well.

He will not be able to do miracles with the bat every time he goes to the crease. But the frisson of excitement as he walks out is palpable. On this occasion, he was not going to die wondering. He was peppered a couple of times early on, chanced his arm and got away with it, and was into his stride. Rabada was pulled disdainfully over midwicket for six and the bowling, so disciplined and aggressive up to that point, became angry and broke ranks. With 58 from 54 balls here (nine fours and a six) he has now scored 368 runs in this series from 334 balls.

Rather than take the game away from South Africa, though, Root and Stokes have merely hauled England back into a match that was slipping from their grasp. If the England bowling had failed to take the initiative with the new ball on the first morning, then, for all their comeback later as they found their lengths,they still allowed the South African tail to slip the leash so that the last three wickets were able to add 88.

It took Stokes to finish things, a bizarre circumstance in which he was bowling to finish an over after Jimmy Anderson, much to his surprise, was prevented from bowling further for an apparent second warning for running on the middle of the pitch in his follow-through. The bowler appeared unaware that he had received a first warning. There were two more catches for Bairstow, making six for the innings to go with his important part in a run out, but he missed the chance that would have given him a seventh and a share of the world record for an innings.

The fear was that South Africa, with a battery of four seamers, all of whom are used to the conditions at the Wanderers, might make much better use of the tools they were given, and for a while it seemed the case. Alex Hales, struggling to make an impact in his brief career, drove flat footedly and was caught at second slip, and Alastair Cook was caught by the keeper down the leg side to give Hardus Viljoen a maiden Test wicket with his opening delivery.

It has been clear that Morkel in particular has been trying to exploit an apparent weakness to the shortish ball aimed at the right side of Cook’s ribcage, but this was less a tactic than an off target loosener that swung a little. Compton then played a strange innings in which he scored three runs from 43 balls and then 23 more from 25 before edging to second slip. James Taylor was athletically caught by Temba Bavuma at short leg to give Morkel his first wicket.

(Guardian service)

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.