One of the saddest things about the announcement of Ted Dexter’s death before the second morning at Headingley is that he did not live to enjoy these last two days of utter English dominance.
A player who so imposed himself on the opposition that his confidence occasionally bordered on arrogance, he would no doubt have relished a successor as England captain doing much the same.
Not that the Joe Root kind of dominance borders on arrogance at all. But given a launchpad by an excellent opening stand for the first time in what seems a lifetime, he was able to give full rein to his strokes in a way that he had not been allowed to in recent Test innings. It meant England were able to turn an overnight lead of 42 into one of 345 by the close with the top four all recording half centuries.
Root himself turned that into a third century in three Tests – no one’s talking about his conversion rate anymore – his 23rd in all and sixth this year. He shared in stands of 139 with Dawid Malan and a quickfire one of 52 with Jonny Bairstow and England’s lower order embraced the cavalier spirit to put an Indian recovery all but out of reach.
All this happened on a generally overcast day when India might have been expecting significantly more movement than they extracted, both in the air and off the seam. They had a right to be mystified, but having been denied a Test in Leeds for 19 years, their appreciation of local conditions might have been lacking. In that match in 2002 Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly scored hundreds as India won by an innings. We might see a reverse of that result here in the next couple of days, built on only one masterful hundred, but incorporating crucial contributions from the top order.
If Root’s innings was the most pleasing on the eye on the second day, Malan’s was the most gladdening to the heart, coming after three years in the Test wilderness.
Dexter – whose criticisms of some modern-day techniques among England batsmen, outlined in a letter to The Cricketer earlier in the summer, turned out to be one of his last public contributions to the game – would have nodded appreciation of the pair’s third-wicket partnership, so littered was it with the kind of fluent boundaries he would specialise in, on both sides of the wicket.
They came together shortly before lunch after Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed, who began with half-centuries to their name, were finally removed. Burns went first, 40 minutes into the day’s play, driving at Mohammed Shami, whose angle from round the wicket accentuated the gap between bat and pad, while Hameed had only added eight to his overnight score when he too was bowled by a superb one by Ravi Jadeja, possibly the only ball to turn significantly without the help of footmarks.
But both had done an exceptional job, Hameed confirming the promise first seen five years ago and Burns seemingly relieved of the Dom Sibley-shaped ball around his ankle that has appeared to restrict his strokemaking and confidence.
Hameed he repelled everything that Jasprit Bumrah in particular could throw at him as he occupied the crease for much of the morning session. That started with a keen examination of his abstemiousness near off stump as the Indian quick bowler went wider and wider on the crease, perhaps trying to induce a misjudgement in shouldering arms, and progressed into scrutiny of his playing of the short ball; that produced almost an orgy of ducking as the opener refused entreaties to pull or hook.
Perhaps, though, it was no bad thing that both should depart, for England’s longer-term ambitions, because Root resumed where he left off at Lord’s and Malan played as if he had never been away. Malan, in fact, dealt only in boundaries for his first 16 runs, the first the silkiest of caresses through cover off Bumrah, as he displayed a determination to make the most of another opportunity.
It seems odd to say of a man who had scored four centuries before this one, including two doubles, since the start of the year, but this was Root’s best performance yet. Instead of having to slowly put the England order back together again with the concentration and avoidance of error of a surgeon performing a delicate operation, he was able to play at his exuberant finest from pretty much the word go.
There was the sumptuous cover drive, the back foot force through square cover off the quicker bowlers and between mid-wicket and mid-on off the slower, an astonishing sweep into the same area – all wrapped up in a package of impish glides, brush strokes to various landscapes around third man, and jaunty, sprightly running between the wickets.
If that doesn’t convince you, look at the bare statistics. According to Cricviz, his half-century, brought up in 57 balls and containing seven fours, included only 3.4% of false shots, his lowest percentage in a score of 50 or more. It was also the lowest percentage of false shots in a score of 50 or more in England since 2006.
It was that good.
Not that Malan paled too much by comparison. While he was the slower of the pair – he contributed 11 to the first 50 of their stand and 33 when they reached three figures – he was sound in defence, firm in his judgement of what to leave and truly elegant when the opportunity arose, his square cutting and driving particularly impressive.
With his captain, he made light of the second new ball and went to a welcome half-century, his seventh, from 99 balls with eight fours. He had moved to 70 with the shot of the day, creamed through the covers with Gower-esque elegance off Mohammed Siraj, when he fell to the last ball before tea. Siraj, operating from round the wicket, speared a full one down the leg-side, and although Malan seemed to miss his attempt to glance it, and nobody behind the wicket was the least bit interested, the bowler was convinced he had detected the thinnest of edges – and so it proved on review.
So Malan missed out on a deserved hundred, but after the interval England pressed home their advantage with Bairstow similarly freed by his team’s strong foundations, which had now produced a lead of more than 200. This was ‘Jonny white-ball’ in red-ball cricket as he struck four fours and a six, the two Yorkshiremen adding 52 in 13 overs in such an untroubled manner that it was a surprise when Bairstow edged Shami to Kohli at second slip.
By then Root had pushed on to his hundred, from 124 balls and with 12 fours, but he soon lost Jos Buttler, clipping to mid-wicket. When Root’s tired push at Bumrah left a gate for him to bowl him through it precipitated a mini-collapse as Moeen Ali and Sam Curran fell to more adventurous shots than the situation demanded.
While those wickets will have lent some respectability to the figures of the Indian pace attack, it was another chastening day for the tourists, who will point to a second new ball that, according to the stats, moved even less than one they took the previous evening. It didn’t help that Ishant looked well out of sorts all day, his arm getting lower and lower until there was a danger of him being mistaken for Kedhar Jadav.
But if there is a glimmer for India it is that when they get to bat again today, it is that England have not completely ground them into the dust, it is still only a third-day pitch and if it plays as well as it did on the second, there is no reason, given their resources, why they shouldn’t perform with professional equal to that which England have shown here.
Clutching at straws? Maybe. England, for their part, will be hopeful that scoreboard pressure does the trick. And what a fine tribute, as bowlers and batsmen, that would be to a fine all rounder. His name? Ted Dexter.