Sydney: It is the second last over of the truncated first day of the fifth Ashes Test in Sydney. The shadows of the Brewongle Stand are starting to fall across the pitch, in the middle is England’s captain, Joe Root. He is unbeaten on 75, on the far side Mitchell Starc has had an awful day, he has been going at nearly four runs an over, but with a second new ball in his hand, he has the ability to change the course of the game in a flash.
The crowd sense the moment, Starc pitches up with the new cherry, but Root drives him imperiously down the ground for four. Next ball, is similar but swings in a touch, it thuds into the inside edge off Root’s bat, narrowly misses the leg–stump and races to the boundary. Root moves into the 80s. Starc’s day gets worse. The third ball is possibly the worst of them all, a genuine half volley on leg-stump, it is a ball even the modern No 11 would feast on.
Root does as well, but it is slightly uppish, and ends in the hands of the square leg fielder, who takes the catch diving to his right. Starc smiles, almost in a sheepish manner. Root is crouched low, head bowed down, his gloves and his bat handle hid the disappointment on his face. In a way it sums up the Ashes, a golden opportunity missed once again.
Root had batted superbly for his 83. He had made the right decision at the toss to bat first, despite the gloomy skies and the tinge of green on the SCG surface. His openers have done all the hard work and protected him against the new ball. The time he walked in, the clouds that delayed the start of play for two hours had blown out towards the Coogee Bay and the sun was making its appearance for the first time. The Kookaburra was in the 28th over and more importantly Starc was off his game.
After resisting the bait against the full and wide balls, Root unleashed a powerful cut against a Cummins short ball to kick start his innings. It was a shot that told a great deal about his intent. It was no late cut behind point a shot that is customary to Root. It was a blazing square cut, in front of point, ala Steve Waugh or a Virender Sehwag.
Throughout the series, Root has been reluctant to take on the short ball. He has preferred to duck, weave or ride, but in Sydney, he had decided to take it on. It took Australia 25 balls to test him, but the minute he saw it short, he pivoted on his right leg and hooked it between the two deep fielders for a boundary.
Some might consider it a streaky shot, after all there was a bit of top edge in it, but importantly it came with a positive mindset.
For the next hour, Australia ditched the plan and focused on trying to edge on behind his stumps.
While in his 30s, Root went 14 consecutive balls without scoring. It might not seem a lot, but in that period, four of those deliveries had been crisply struck into the hands of the inner ring fielders. The frustration levels must have been sky high and Root’s temperament was tested. But like all the great players, he found a way through the tough period by unleashing another glorious drive. It kick started his innings again and when the next short ball came a couple of overs later, he dispatched with ease to the fence.
Technically, Root was at his best. It was either a vertical bat or the horizontal one. The movement was well forward or right back. Against the spin of Lyon, he worked the ball into gaps with the spin with consummate ease.
Root brought up his fifty with majestic square drive past point and one could sense his moment Down Under had finally arrived. For the next hour, Root was in his zone, unflattered by any of Smith’s field placements or plans. The straight ball that had trapped him LBW a couple times was now met with a full face of the bat.
With Root looking at ease and time running out for the day, Smith got desperate and even recalled Starc into the attack despite the second new ball being only four overs away.
But this time England realised Starc was off his game — his pace was dipping towards 130s, his short ball was bouncing like a tennis ball on a clay court and his good length balls were half-volleys. David Malan cashed in and took ten off Australia’s premier quick.
The tide was turning. The risk of playing Starc was starting to backfire on the hosts. But then came that that horrible moment. For five hours Starc had looked like a passenger, but such was his luck that with possibly the worst ball of day, he managed to snare the prized scalp of the well-set Root. For the English skipper, it simply wasn’t to be. The wait for the much anticipated ton on the Australian soil grows. For Starc, the day wasn’t that bad after all.