Joe Root hundred puts England in charge
England 285 and 324 for 9 (Joe Root 124 in 146 balls – 10×4, 2×6, Rory Burns 59, Keaton Jennings 26, Jos Buttler 34, Ben Foakes 51 n.o., Akila Dananjaya 6/106, Dilruwan Perera 2-87 )
Sri Lanka 336
(England lead by 278 runs with 1 wkt. in hand, two days remaining)
The leap into the air and punch of the fist upon reaching his century told its own story: Joe Root knew how important this innings was.
It was not so much that Root had, in scoring his second century in three Tests, moved to silence the talk about his modest conversion rate. And it wasn’t so much that, for a man of his ability, he had a relatively modest record away from home: this was his 15th Test century, after all, but only his fourth away.
No, it was more about the fact that Root knew that, when he began this innings, the match – and as a consequence, the series – was in the balance. And he knew that, having talked a good game about responding to adversity with positivity and aggression, he had put his actions into words.
Not long after Root arrived at the crease, England slipped to 109 for 4, meaning they led by a fragile-looking 63. But so well did Root play, so masterfully did he combat the turn, that the lead was stretched beyond to 250 by the time he fell.
And, in scoring at a strike rate of 84.93, Root had been true to his words. He had refused to allow the spinners to settle, hitting them off their lengths, forcing changes in the field and finding the gaps with those deft strokes which are his hallmark.
So if the highlights were the sixes, heaved over midwicket off Dilruwan Perera and drilled back over the head of Akila Dananjaya, or the sweeps – there were three powerfully hit conventional ones and one violently struck reverse – just as important were the deflections and nudges into the gaps and the merciless running between the wickets.
Whatever you think of the England method – whether it’s wise, whether it’s practical, whether it’s based on an innate distrust of their own defence – it is wonderfully entertaining. Here they scored at something around four-and-a-half an over for most of the day, reacting to adversity by attempting to put pressure back on the bowlers.
It worked, too. While Dananjaya survived a difficult spell midway through the day to claim a career-best six-for, he and his colleagues appeared wrong-footed by England’s aggression. In an attempt to defend the boundaries, gaps appeared in the infield that allowed singles to be picked off with infuriating ease from a Sri Lankan perspective. And with sweeps interspersed with clips and drives, some of the Sri Lanka bowling became just a little ragged. For the first time, but surely not the last, the absence of Rangana Herath stung.
The flip-side of such positivity is that it tends to involve risk. So the first seven wickets, including Root, fell to the sweep of various descriptions, which could, if viewed on a highlights package, look ugly. But already England have set the record for the most reverse-sweeps played in a series and, in both scoring heavily and disrupting Sri Lanka’s plans, they will feel they had the best of the risk-reward ratio. If you live by the sweep, you probably have to accept dying by the sweep.
Root’s efforts were put in perspective by the struggles of his colleagues. Ben Stokes and Sam Curran both made ducks and Root’s exit precipitated a collapse that saw England lose three wickets for four runs. While Keaton Jennings and Jos Buttler both flourished briefly, both fell to the reverse-sweep before they could make a definitive contribution.
So England were grateful for half-centuries at either end of their innings from Surrey duo Rory Burns and Ben Foakes.
So assured, so intelligent, so good was Burns’ maiden Test half-century on the third morning that it not only made light of the first-innings deficit of 46, but suggested that the side had found the opening batsman for which they have searched for so long.
A premature conclusion? Maybe. Various other contenders have shone briefly – not least Sam Robson and Adam Lyth, who made centuries in their second Tests – only to fall away. But it is hard to recall many innings as impressive as this in demanding circumstances from a new England opener for a long time. Burns skipped down the pitch on occasions, used the crease intelligently, swept often and ran like a leopard between the wickets. The manner in which he dropped the ball at his feet and sprinted singles was infuriating for Sri Lanka.
Foakes, meanwhile, appears to have taken to this level with ease. Having helped Root add 82 for the seventh-wicket, he accelerated when left with only James Anderson. By the time rain intervened, England had stretched their lead to 278.