Some, often not those at the ground, have been suggesting that the England batsmen have been backing away from Mitchell Johnson in fear of losing some handy organ. For those people, Joe Root should become a folk hero: the boy who wouldn’t back down. Root wouldn’t fall.
Root didn’t just stand his ground, he giggled at Johnson. As if Johnson was some boy who had told him his mum smelt of peanut butter in the schoolyard.
This was the same Johnson who went through England like they were a soda can and he was one of those supernatural knifes you see advertised on late-night TV. This was the Johnson who had bruised, bullied and battered an entire batting order three innings straight. He was howling at Root, each play and miss made him even more furious, and he rarely missed a chance to snort aggressively or tell Root about it.
Root just continued to giggle.
Jonathan Agnew said on Twitter that Root gave Johnson an angelic smile. The fact he looks young shouldn’t fool anyone. Root is obviously far harder and way too cheeky to ever be that angelic. When Root was confirmed as the person swung at by David Warner in a bar on Australia’s tour of England, no one who knew him was that surprised. He’s known as a pest by many. His face still looks nice because he is young and unburdened by the life of failure and hard work that crushes fresh faces. Even Ricky Ponting once looked like a lovely young boy.
Root wasn’t giggling nervously at Mitch, he genuinely thought it was funny and liked that Johnson was going after him verbally. This wasn’t a small, frail boy up against a category five Kaiju, this was a Test batsman with real skill taking on a snarling wild beast. And Root won.
Kevin Pietersen helped during their partnership but generally let Root hold his own, even in the sledging periods. The only time Pietersen felt the need to get involved was when Watson came in to add to the noise of Johnson’s heavy breathing. One of the many times umpire Kumar Dharmasena got involved in the day (since he doesn’t give no balls any more, he has more time on his hands) was to stop the chat between Pietersen and Watson.
On the whole Pietersen was subdued. Balls that could have been gloriously flamingoed in the air through the two waiting catchers at short midwicket were actually pushed safely along the ground to cover. Except for the balls that needed to be dispatched violently from Steven Smith (to keep such filth on the ground KP would have to work against muscle memory), it was a very disciplined innings from him. But yet again, he got trapped nowhere in a spell from Peter Siddle.
No one trapped Root. He beat the subtle variations of Siddle and Ryan Harris. He handled the stifling frugality of Watson, the odd good delivery from Nathan Lyon. He even managed to not smack the ball to a fielder when Smith bowled long hops.
It was the innings that England fans needed to see. Jonny Bairstow has not shown enough. James Taylor is not in the squad. Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan are pigeonholed for other formats. Nick Compton has disappeared. Jonathan Trott has gone home. England needed to see that one of their new men had passed more than just psychological tests off the field. He needed to stand up to one on it.
It was only Root’s second half-century since his hundred at Lord’s during the previous series. And despite that hundred being a daddy (180), this 87 was probably the best Root has batted in Test cricket. He did it in a situation that has prolonged his side’s misery but maybe given them hope that not all is lost in the future.
Root even took them past 180, which might not seem like much, but when you’re looking up from the gutter, 180 is a long way away.
It’s not overly surprising that Root played Johnson better than most. His reflexes should be pretty much at their best, he is a natural back-foot player and he seems to like fast bowling. The only real time in the innings he looked like he had any trouble was when late on the front foot trying to drive length balls through the off side. Every play and miss made more smoke come from Johnson’s nostrils, but Root seemed less fazed.
The fact he played the shot more than once shows his patience and technique can still be tested but not many Test cricketers of his age would have stood up to the Australia attack under these circumstances for so long. Many a young man has wafted aimlessly outside off stump before that gets beaten out of them through failure.
Root looked so well set that his wicket seemed like a surprise. Unlucky too, as an inside edge on to the thigh pad won’t often end up back with the keeper. His trudge from the crease was very young-boy like, he could barely lift his head up and, when the crowd stood to cheer him, he just flopped his bat up for a millisecond. It showed how much it meant to him, the hundred, the match, the series. But he shouldn’t be ashamed of how he batted today, not ever.
This innings might give England hope that, even if they haven’t found a certain No. 3, they at least have found a quality player who can perform when the others can’t. His innings either gave England a chance at rain on the final day, or kept them on the rack a little longer. It was the innings of a folk hero. Not an actual hero. Not yet.