“IN an England cricket 11, the flesh may be of the south, but the bone is of the north, and the backbone is Yorkshire.”
So proclaimed former England captain Len Hutton, whose famous assertion echoes down the ages.
It certainly held true at Adelaide yesterday, where Yorkshire’s Joe Root displayed backbone hitherto lacking among his colleagues.
Root’s 87 was England’s highest score of the Ashes to date and an innings of which Hutton would doubtless have been proud.
Why, had England also selected Yorkshire’s Tim Bresnan, Gary Ballance and even Jonny Bairstow for the second Test match, a little more backbone might have been evident these past few days.
As it was, not even Root’s brave rearguard could prevent them from going into today’s final day needing a miracle to avoid falling 2-0 behind heading into Friday’s third Test at Perth, where they have won only once in 12 attempts.
England were set to resume in the early hours of the morning on 247-6, still 284 shy of a notional target of 531.
But whatever transpired Down Under today, Root showed fight of a fashion once heralded by Hutton.
Forget the archetypal man for all seasons, Root is fast becoming the batsman for all positions.
During his 13-match Test career, the 22-year-old has been up and down more often than a window cleaner on amphetamine.
A year ago this week, Root made his Test debut against India at Nagpur batting at No 6.
He joint top-scored with 73 in the first innings as England secured a draw that sealed a 2-1 series win, ending 28 years of hurt on Indian soil.
Root remained at No 6 for the winter series in New Zealand and then moved up to No 5 for the early-summer re-match, responding by hitting 104 at Headingley – his maiden Test hundred and an innings that revealed a great talent and temperament.
Such was his success, Root was asked to open in the home series against Australia and, although he did not score the weight of runs he would have wished, he still made 180 at Lord’s from what some believe is his best position, and the one from which he has most prospered at Yorkshire.
Root found himself back down to No 6 for last month’s opening Test in Brisbane and then up to No 3 at Adelaide following Jonathan Trott’s unfortunate return home due to a stress-related illness.
Yet, despite all the upheaval, Root still averages 40 in his fledgling career – suggesting a player who has backbone in buckets.
Indeed, one only had to watch Root repel Mitchell Johnson at Adelaide to know that he enjoys a good battle, which is just as well in this playground Test series of sledging and silliness, handbags and hubris.
Root eschewed the hook as surely as Alastair Cook embraced it to calamitous effect earlier in the day and played with great selectivity and composure.
With every resolute dead bat, judicious leave or sensible run taken, Johnson’s handlebar moustache twitched a little more as he glared at the young Yorkshireman with a kind of “are you looking at my girlfriend?” type posture.
“Aye, what if I am,” Root’s smile might have said, “and she’s far too good for a larrikin like you.”
A century was Root’s for the deserving if not quite the taking, but, on the Australian’s unlucky number, he got an inside edge to a ball from off-spinner Nathan Lyon that diverted into his thigh pad and into the waiting gloves of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, who smartly anticipated a diving catch.
As Root left the field to loud applause, he half-raised his bat in acknowledgement that failed to mask his deep disappointment.
Suddenly, everyone who had said that only Ian Bell could bat at No 3 was abruptly silenced and given to ponder the fickle nature of punditry.
Why, Root’s backbone, bottle and brilliance had seen to it.
Reflecting on the day after close of play, Root said: “Everyone watching and playing knew we were in a battle.
“We knew we had to front up and we did that to a certain extent today. Now we have to scrap on and do the same thing tomorrow. We’re up against it but, if there’s a bit of weather around, it might help and we have to make it as hard for Australia as possible.”
Root said he particularly enjoyed the challenge of facing Johnson. The fast bowler was less effective on Sunday after taking 7-40 in England’s first innings, destroying the tourists with a triple-wicket maiden that burned into a million memory banks.
“I really enjoyed the challenge,” said Root, “And I think we played him better today.
“Hopefully, we can take a lot from that into Perth. Everyone has their own way of dealing with it (fast bowling). To me, if you’re losing Tests, regardless of your scores, then you’re not going to pride yourself on performances. We knew we would need a different sort of mindset and that we had to find a way of playing the situation as well as possible.
“It’s certainly good to be involved in a battle where you have to front up.”
Root led that fight yesterday but was not a lone hand.
Kevin Pietersen, whose first innings dismissal was even more culpable than Root’s, who had slog-swept Lyon to deep square-leg, for once did not fall into the telegraphed trap of hitting the ball in the direction of two specifically-stationed short mid-wickets and instead got his head down to add 111 with Root before Peter Siddle bowled him off an inside edge.
After scores of 158 and 227 in Pietersen’s previous two Adelaide Tests, 53 was perhaps something of a failure. After innings of 18, 26 and 4 up to that point in the series, however, it was positively a triumph and a timely confidence-booster ahead of Perth.
Matt Prior’s unbeaten 31 kept the Sword of Damacles hanging above his head by the single hair of a horse’s tail, while Stuart Broad made an undefeated 22 and Ben Stokes showed one or two nice touches during an innings of 28 that was not without several close shaves.
But Cook’s mistake in biffing a bouncer from Johnson into the hands of long leg at the start of the day, followed by Michael Carberry’s similarly injudicious pull to deep square-leg off Siddle, beggared belief, while Bell’s inexplicable thumping of a full toss from Steve Smith to mid-on continued a trend of self-inflicted problems that have characterised England’s performance.
So thank goodness for Root and his Yorkshire resistance.
It merely proved what Len Hutton had been saying all along.