England’s master craftsman Joe Root provides soothing balm amid grim times – Chris Waters

LET’S face it, things are pretty bleak at the moment.

MASTERCLASS: England's Joe Root plays through the leg side on his way to a century against Sri Lanka in the second Test match in Galle on Snday. Picture courtesy of Sri Lankan Cricket (via ECB).

If it’s not the Brothers Grim, Messrs Whitty and Vallance, presenting their latest doom-filled statistics, it’s the Angels of Dread, Hancock and Johnson, giving their latest “we really hate to do this everyone…” speech as they tighten the Covid rules and restrictions.

Thanks goodness, then, for Yorkshire’s Joe Root, proud son of Sheffield and captain of England.

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A little relief is needed now more than ever, and, for those of us able to derive it through cricket, Root is applying soothing balm to these stricken times with his batting in the heat and dust of Sri Lanka.

Joe Root celebrates his century for England against Sri Lanka in the second Test match in Galle on Sunday. Picture courtesy of Sri Lankan Cricket (via ECB)

What is there left to say of this extraordinary fellow?

The superlatives were exhausted in the first Test, when Root scored 228 to help England to victory.

Now a few more are required to do justice to the task.

Quick, somebody publish a bigger thesaurus ...

Joe Root passed former England team-mate Kevin Pietersen in the all-time England list for Test match runs when scoring his centuiry in Galle. Picture: Sean Dempsey/PA Wire.

Cricket is awash with mind-numbing stats, but Root’s numbers are worth dwelling on.

During this latest masterclass innings of 186, as England replied to Sri Lanka’s 381 to reach 339-9 at stumps on day three in Galle, Root left three giants of English cricket trailing in his wake in the list of the country’s all-time Test match run-scorers.

Having started the game with 8,052 runs from 98 appearances, Root went past Sir Geoffrey Boycott (8,114), Kevin Pietersen (8,181) and David Gower (8,231) to reach 8,238 with power to add.

Only Alec Stewart (8,463), Graham Gooch (8,900) and Sir Alastair Cook (12,472) have scored more Test runs for England, and Root, who has just turned 30 in an era in which there is more Test cricket than you could shake a stick at, has plenty of time to go past Cook and climb to No 1.

Joe Root passed fellow Yorkshireman Sir Geoffrey Boycott in the all-time England list for Test match runs when scoring his centuiry in Galle. Picture: Adrian Murrell/Allsport UK/Getty Images

Root already possesses the best average (49.62) of anyone in the England top-ten, which also includes Michael Atherton (7,728 runs), Ian Bell (7,727) and Colin Cowdrey (7,624).

His skill against spin is second to none, his judgement of line and length impeccable; ditto his endurance and powers of concentration.

It says everything about the great game of Test cricket, though, which fluctuates this way and that like the not-so-great English weather, that Root was bitterly disappointed as he left the field after his performance.

He was cruelly dismissed in the day’s last over, clipping the off-spin of Dilruwan Perera firmly to short-leg where Oshada Fernando gathered the ball and threw down the stumps in an instinctive movement, with Root, whose momentum in playing the stroke had carried him out of the crease, not quite able to get back in time.

Beset by cramp and stiffness in his back, due not only to the heat and humidity but also through bending and turning when sweeping conventionally or otherwise, Root left nothing behind the white line, as the saying goes, and crossed it on his return to the pavilion to a deserved ovation from his team-mates, if sadly not that of a crowd.

It was his ninth score of 150-plus in Test cricket and his 19th hundred, taking him past the century total of Michael Vaughan, his friend and mentor,

Another 14 runs and Root would have been the only Englishman to have scored double hundreds in back-to-back Test matches after Wally Hammond, who is the only man to have done so twice, in 1928 and 1933.

Root’s inventiveness here was stunning at times, one reverse late-cut – ie, a late-cut played left-handed – revealing an ambidexterity that put one in mind of the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Perhaps the only way that Root could be stopped at present is if the International Cricket Council ruled that he must be made to bat left-handed. On the other hand, it is probably best not to give the mandarins at the ICC too many bright ideas, while that would probably not stem Root’s output in any case.

He looks to be a batsman at the peak of his powers and, on this evidence, in the form of his life, a master craftsman in his element.

It was only towards the end of his marathon, indeed, that the brief signs of human frailty began to surface as tiredness took hold. On 172, Root edged Lasith Embuldeniya, the left-arm spinner, to slip, where Lahiru Thirimanne just got his fingertips to the ball but couldn’t cling on.

Ironically, Thirimanne did cling on to five catches off Embuldeniya, a record by a fielder off one bowler in a Test innings, and he nearly had a second opportunity to take Root at slip only for the batsman, on 176, to get just enough on the ball to send it looping agonisingly over his head after an attempted hit to the leg side off Embuldeniya.

The spinner returned career-best figures of 7-132, the early wickets of Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence on day three, both caught close in, leaving England vulnerable at 132-4 before Jos Buttler (55) added 97 with Root before Buttler, too, was unlucky, caught off his boot when trying to play a reverse sweep.

After the Thirimanne-Embuldeniya combination accounted for Sam Curran, Dom Bess added 81 with Root, contributing 32 before perishing to the same Sri Lankan double-act.

Mark Wood also fell to it – haplessly so when he should have been playing for his captain, slicing a wild slog-sweep as England lost 3-6 in the closing stages to leave them 42 adrift with one wicket left.

Without Root they would already be out of the game, his innings a ray of light amid life’s prevailing gloom.

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