Joe Root’s exuberance lights up first day of Ashes series

England batsman makes second Test century against Australia on slow Cardiff pitch

Close of Day 1: England 343-7

There are, a consensus has it, four outstanding young batsmen in the world today, playing, in all forms of the game, at a consistent level above anyone else. One is Virat Kohli of India, and a second, New Zealand’s unflappable run machine Kane Williamson, we have already seen this summer.

The other two are playing in the first Test in Cardiff. Of these, Steve Smith will get his chance perhaps on the second day to show his remarkable progress from perceived clown to the top ranked batsman on the planet. For now though, the rise and rise of Joe Root, the epitome of youthful exuberance, continues. Root, not yet 25 years old, is having the time of his life, in that state, unencumbered by theory and over analysis, where batting becomes so easy that it must be hard for him to comprehend how difficult it can be for others.

Dropped by Brad Haddin behind the wicket from the second ball he faced from Mitchell Starc, he made a sublime century, his second against Australia and the seventh of his career, that pulled England away from a tricky situation at 43 for three, and was not to be dismissed until Starc returned for his sixth spell and with his first ball, angled across, had him well caught low down at first slip by Shane Watson.


By then, though, he had made 134, hitting 17 fours in the process, most of them sweetly through extra cover. There was assistance. Gary Ballance, whose idiosyncratic technique will have been scrutinised by Australia and no doubt left them wondering how precisely he has managed to average in the mid-50s, weathered the early storm that saw the loss of Adam Lyth, in the second over of the day, and then Alastair Cook and Ian Bell immediately after the first drinks break.

Ballance was to make 61 in three and three quarter hours during which he scarcely made a mistake, until he was lbw to a full ball from the persevering Josh Hazlewood. But by then he and Root had added 153 for the fourth wicket, effectively wiping out the earlier set-back.

Later, Ben Stokes arrived to play with freedom once again, making 52, with seven fours and two sixes, one a top edged hook over fine leg and the other straight from Lyons, before he was bowled by a beauty from Starc that pitched around middle and took off stump. "Sssh" Starc mimed, finger to lips, as Stokes grumped his way off: sound advice.

These really are remarkable times for Root. From the start of play he had sat on the dressing room balcony, grinning away at the lark of it all. He watched as Lyth edged Hazelwood's third ball low to David Warner in the gully, who took a sharp catch well – a good delivery that swung into the left-hander, prompting him to look legside, but then held off the pitch. Soon after, Cook, looking to be positive against Nathan Lyon's offspin but unable to get away any of the 13 previous deliveries from him, looked for his favourite cut and edged behind.

One run later and Bell all but had his feet knocked from beneath him by Starc’s yorker and was lbw, thus continuing a sorry run of Test match scores – 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12, 1, and now 1 again – since he made 143 against West Indies in the first Test in Antigua back in April.

If it was a ticklish first hour for England, who won the toss and had no hesitation in batting despite some overcast conditions and the occasional squally shower. Those who had taken their seats early expecting to see some fire and brimstone from the Australian pace attack would have been disappointed. Local knowledge had suggested that county pitches had been slow this season, and this, devoid of grass, looks to be no exception.

Haddin stood a long way back for Starc’s opening over, only to find two deliveries bouncing before they reached him. If it nibbled around a little, and swung too, potentially taking the pitch out of the equation, then it would still have signalled a tough day for the bowlers, who could see the law of diminishing returns: the harder they flogged the ball into the pitch, the slower it came off it.

It may suit skiddy bowlers more. Under the circumstances the Australian bowlers stuck to their task handsomely, the reward of three wickets apiece to Hazlewood and particularly Starc more than well-earned. The scoring rate throughout the day was admirable – in excess of four runs per over – but turgid emasculating surfaces such as this do Test cricket few favours.

By the close, England had reached 343 for seven, a total with which they should be content but not more than that. The wicket of Jos Buttler, for 27, shortly before the close, as he hit Hazelwood tamely to mid-on, meant that Australia may well be the more contented of the two teams.

The manner in which Starc and Hazlewood were able to adjust their length to the conditions, bowling fuller than they might habitually be used to, and risking being driven in the process, was exemplary, and the ball was given the opportunity to swing as a result. Jimmy Anderson, in particular, will see encouragement in this, but it promises to be just as hard for the England bowlers as their Australian counterparts.

As it is, it will be down to Moeen Ali, who has batted calmly for his 26, and Stuart Broad to try to get England up to 400 and beyond. Broad, with great commonsense, and no little courage, turned down a long single in the final over in order to ensure Moeen survived, and it will not have gone unnoticed: he can be sure of a working-over first thing, almost certainly from Mitchell Johnson.

(Guardian service)