“THIS lad from Sheffield is a real pleasure to watch … Some compare him to me … Rubbish … He is twice as good … #Rooooooooottttttt”.
So tweeted former England captain Michael Vaughan on the third morning of the Centurion Test.
It was the latest in a long line of compliments bestowed on Root, who is second in the ICC Test batting rankings.
Vaughan, who was hardly unappealing on the eye himself, modestly paid tribute to his fellow Sheffielder, who joint top-scored for England yesterday with 76 along with captain Alastair Cook.
Both men were caught behind off splendid balls: Root when Kagiso Rabada got one to curve away and kiss the edge; Cook when he got one from Morne Morkel that nibbled off the seam to clip the blade.
Root’s departure – after Cook’s dismissal 10 overs earlier had ended their third-wicket stand of 99 – triggered a collapse from 208-3 to 211-6, which left England facing an uphill battle to stay in the game.
The visitors rallied to 342 all-out, thanks mainly to a fine 61 from Moeen Ali, but South Africa go into the fourth day with a lead of 175 after reaching stumps on 42-1.
No blame could be attached to Root and Cook, who played well before being undone by skilful bowling, or indeed Jonny Bairstow, who was sixth out for a third-ball duck when Rabada –who took 7-112 – darted one back to take the glove on its way to the wicketkeeper.
The real frustration was the dismissal of James Taylor, whose reckless hook at Rabada – moments after Root had been dismissed, and with two men out on the leg-side boundary – saw him, too, caught behind, thus exposing Bairstow just before lunch.
Taylor has done some great things in the series at short-leg, catching three absolute snorters, but his dismissal for 14 meant that the three biggest issues going into the game surrounding England’s batting line-up have yet to be resolved.
Namely, are Taylor, his Nottinghamshire team-mate Alex Hales and Middlesex’s Nick Compton up to the task?
Compton, who has managed one half-century in the series in seven innings, was wretchedly unlucky when he got a daisy-cutter from Rabada on Saturday that pinned him lbw for 19.
It was the sort of thing that rarely happens when a batsman is scoring runs for fun, a classic case of sporting Sod’s Law.
But the statistics show that Compton is averaging 34 in the series, Taylor 27 and Hales 19.
Those are underwhelming numbers, to say the least, and Hales’s lazy drive to point on Saturday did nothing to mollify those who feel he does not have the technique to play Test cricket, among them Geoffrey Boycott.
“He (Hales) doesn’t have the attitude for it; he hasn’t got it,” said Boycott.
“Even if he makes runs in the second innings, that’s not enough. I need more consistency from my opening batsmen.”
Boycott was similarly critical of Taylor’s shot, which he described as “appalling”.
Specifically, Boycott felt it showed scrambled thinking at a time when England had just lost Root and were still 264 runs shy of South Africa’s 475, a total which England should never have allowed their hosts to reach.
To these eyes, there is nothing to suggest that the Nottinghamshire pair of Hales and Taylor are better bets than the Yorkshire duo of Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance.
Neither Yorkshire batsman pulled up too many trees against New Zealand and Australia last summer, but gut instinct suggests that they have plenty more to offer.
Many observers – including this correspondent – would have persevered with Lyth as Cook’s opening partner, and while Ballance did find it difficult in the early stages of last summer, he still averages 47 from 15 Tests.
That is not a record to be sniffed at, with Ballance last April becoming the third-fastest England player to 1,000 Test runs behind Yorkshire’s Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton.
Ballance has worked hard to iron out technical deficiencies: making sure that he is better balanced at the crease (no pun intended) and that his weight is going into the ball.
The signs were certainly good towards the end of last season when he averaged 40-plus in both the County Championship and List A after returning to Yorkshire duty, which showed that he has a resolute temperament.
The talk now, though, is that the selection merry-go-round must stop and that England must persevere with Hales at the top of the order for the home series this summer against Sri Lanka.
Perhaps it would be better, however, to either recall Lyth or promote Compton, and to try to get Ballance back into the team.