The roar Joe Root received at The Oval seemed a touch louder than is typical anywhere outside Headingley. It was as though being clobbered by David Warner had endeared him all the more to the England fans. There is something pleasingly down to earth, after all, about a man getting into a ruck in a Walkabout. He may be the best English batsman in a generation but he still drinks in the same dives as the rest of us. It helps, too, that picking on Root seems a particularly pitiless thing to do. Just look at him. Butter would not melt in the mouth of the beardless boy wonder.
Well, here is a pop quiz, posed by the man from the Times in the press box: “About which English batsman did Tim Bresnan recently say: ‘Sometimes he is quite cheeky and you want to slap him, but you have to hold yourself’?” Please pop your answers on a postcard addressed to David Warner, care of the Australia dressing room.
Root’s batting certainly has an impudent streak. He played the scoop three times in his innings of 68 off 55 balls, a shot still so new that no one has quite settled on exactly what to call it. Root, along with Jos Buttler, is part of a generation who have grown up playing it. It seems extravagant but it is second nature to the young shavers.
Root used it once to hit a full delivery from Shaminda Eranga to fine-leg for four and, mind-bogglingly, twice played a reversed version where he switched his grip and sent the ball to third man. The bouncing ball scattered the unsuspecting spectators there. Presumably they thought they were safe from harm where they sat. Root, though, seems to have a shot to find every part of the ground. His wagon-wheel showed a perfect distribution, his runs coming wherever there were gaps to be found. Jonathan Trott, by way of contrast, did not hit a thing between cover and mid-on.
Root meant those three scoop strokes but even he would have struggled to repeat another, when he tried to play a pull but caught the ball with the toe-end of his bat and hit it away square past point, the opposite direction to the one he was aiming in. He broke into a goofy grin after that, still giggling as he finished his second run.
It sometimes seems as if Root is taking part in a school sports day rather than an international match, just because he takes such obvious pleasure in what he is doing. And his slight shoulders, smooth cheeks, and spindly arms make him look even younger than he is.
Then he bats with such puppyish enthusiasm, always bouncing on his heels and bounding along for his runs as though chasing a roll of Andrex down the wicket.
Trott and he make an enjoyably odd couple in the middle. The elder batsman, mindful of how much trouble the two of them have had with their running, often shooting stern looks at the youngster. When Root finishes a run he instinctively takes two quick strides out of the crease before looking up to see whether his partner is going to send him back or not. Every single is an opportunity for a second.
That hustle works well in the middle order. He took no time to settle himself in when he arrived with the score on 129 for two in the 29th over. He took a single from his first ball and at least another from each of his next eight.
He had made it into double figures without doing anything so risky as dancing around David Warner while wearing a comedy wig. England’s run rate started to increase as soon as he came to the wicket, creeping up from four and a half to a flat five.
Root’s half-century, his fourth in 12 innings, came from 43 balls. It included only two boundaries, that scoop off Eranga and a vicious pull off Nuwan Kulasekara. He hardly stopped to celebrate it, barely offering a wave of his bat to acknowledge the applause. By then he was in the thick of an intriguing duel with Lasith Malinga, who should have had him caught, twice. Tillakaratne Dilshan missed him once at backward point and Kumar Sangakkara did so again running round towards square-leg from behind the stumps. Root’s riposte to the second of the two missed chances was a pair of perfect cover drives, each for four, as if to show that he is talented enough to play the fine old shots as well as the fancy new ones.
Then Malinga got him, at last, with a slower ball that Root tried to slog-sweep into the stiff wind blowing over from the Harleyford Road.
As Root walked back to the dressing room, where his team-mates were on their feet applauding his innings, he shot a wink at the camera and for a moment one could just see a spark of the devil inside him.