JOE ROOT must have presumed that he was coming back to Yorkshire primarily for batting practice ahead of the Test matches that start later this month.
But yesterday the England captain found himself pressed into service in a leadership capacity, taking charge of the Yorkshire team in the absence of Gary Ballance, who returned to Leeds complaining of illness.
Root had only led Yorkshire four times previously, the first of them on that infamous occasion in 2014 when Middlesex chased 472 to win at Lord’s by seven wickets.
That led to the Yorkshire players conferring on him the nickname “craptain”, one that he took in his stride before going on to prove it of erroneous character by leading his country with distinction.
Root’s first and most important decision yesterday was whether to take up the right of the visiting side to bowl first, something that does not happen too often at the Oval.
The ground is normally a batting paradise; already this season, there had been two totals of 400-plus and one over 500 in the two Championship fixtures played at the venue.
But this pitch – away to the Harleyford Road side of the ground opposite the iconic gasometer – actually had grass on it, which was a bit like chancing on snow in the Sahara desert.
Root put Surrey in and, in the first instance, was rewarded for the enterprise, Yorkshire reducing their hosts to 69-4 before they fought back in easing conditions to reach 366-7 at stumps, Ollie Pope top-scoring with an unbeaten 131 as an initially promising day for the visitors developed into one of painstaking toil.
Ballance’s condition – described as “a bug” – had been concerning enough for Yorkshire to instruct opener Alex Lees to travel south the previous evening.
Lees made a century at the Oval last September and has been unlucky so far this year, with Harry Brook and Jack Leaning preferred in the clamour for early-season places.
This pitch – away to the Harleyford Road side of the ground opposite the iconic gasometer – actually had grass on it, which was a bit like chancing on snow in the Sahara desert.Chris Waters
Surrey started the game brightly, Rory Burns cover-driving the second delivery from Tim Bresnan to the boundary in the direction of the gasometer, but Yorkshire hit back to remove both openers inside the first eight overs.
Mark Stoneman pushed forward at a delivery from Bresnan and was lbw, and then fellow left-hander Burns edged Jack Brooks to Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip, Brooks’s 400th first-class wicket on his 110th appearance.
Stoneman’s form remains a worry ahead of the Tests; in seven innings this season, he has yet to reach 30, while Surrey captain Burns had been hoping to nudge the selectors himself by building on his 193 last week against Worcestershire.
None of which would have overly interested Yorkshire, who promptly reduced Surrey to 40-3 when Scott Borthwick hung out his bat to a delivery from Josh Shaw and was caught at second slip by Adam Lyth.
Shaw, bowling with slippery speed from the Pavilion End, came into the side in place of leading wicket-taker Ben Coad, who has been struggling with a sore ankle and a touch of fatigue.
When Steve Patterson feathered Ben Foakes’s outside edge through to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, Surrey were 69-4 and in palpable discomfort, a position they improved to 92-4 at lunch as Dean Elgar, the South African, joined forces with 20-year-old Pope, who came into the game in fine form having hit a hundred here against Hampshire last month.
After lunch, the pair had extended their fifth-wicket stand to 68 in 21 overs when Elgar was bowled between bat and pad by Root, who thus claimed his first Championship wicket for 13 months.
Root sent down 11 overs of tidy off-spin from the Pavilion End after Yorkshire chose to leave out specialist spinner Karl Carver from the squad that travelled.
Another breakthrough came when Patterson had Sam Curran caught behind pushing forward at a ball that angled across him, leaving Surrey 162-6.
But Pope and veteran Rikki Clarke frustrated Yorkshire with a stand of 129 in 29 overs, a frustration heightened when Pujara put down Clarke on 16 at first slip off Shaw just before tea when the stand was worth 35, although the ball flew high to the fielder at a rate of knots before bursting through his hands
Clarke, who achieved 10,000 first-class runs when he reached 24, twice punished Shaw with leg-side sixes, while the compact Pope was all improvisation and invention as he worked the ball on both sides of the ground.
Pope is a player fast attracting the attention of the England selectors as one of several potential new cabs off the batting rank, and the young man found another keen ally in Conor McKerr, with whom he added an unbroken 75 for the eighth-wicket in 11.1 overs against the second new ball before bad light ended play with 3.3 overs remaining.
Lyth said: “The first two sessions were fantastic for us, but the third was indifferent.
“I thought the young lad Pope played very well for them so hats off to him.
“We dropped a couple of catches which could have made it a different day, and towards the end of the day it got easier to bat and with a short boundary on one side you got full value for your shots. Hopefully we can wrap their innings up early tomorrow then get batting ourselves. I think it is a pitch that is going to get better the longer the game goes on.”