England and Root reward fans’ optimism with riotous batting | England cricket team

Tickets for this Test went on sale last September, and so the vast majority of fans at Trent Bridge on Sunday will have reserved their seats months in advance. Really, you have to admire the leap of faith involved there.

Batting collapses. Erratic weather. Covid postponements. For much of the last few years, buying a ticket to watch England play Test cricket has been an act of the purest optimism: the sporting equivalent of playing the lottery.

Whatever the good people of the east Midlands thought they might see when they entered their credit card details last winter, it probably wasn’t this. Ollie Pope nailing down the No 3 spot with a glorious century. Ben Stokes lawlessly clouting some of the world’s best fast bowlers. England blazing 383 runs at more than four an over and wrestling back control of a match that 24 hours earlier had seemed like a lost cause.

Which was why, whatever the final result, it was a quietly seismic day in the evolution of this side. England’s blitz may not save them the match, or even the series. But the shift in tone and tempo from the dying days of the Joe Root era was clear and stunning: not so much a red-ball reset as a red‑ball rejoicing. On a breezy and tumultuous day in Nottingham, England finally rediscovered their sense of fun.

Nobody was having a better time than Root himself. The temptation will simply be to file his 28th Test century away with all the others: the latest entry in an infinite scroll of excellence. But there was something different about this innings, a madness to his method.

You could see it in the way he bounded down the steps long before the tea interval was over, just desperate to get back out there. You could see it in the way he celebrated reaching three figures: not smiling but convulsing with laughter, like a man who had just heard the world’s funniest joke. Then there were the shots: the audacious top-edged slog sweep off Tim Southee, the numerous sashays down the pitch, a genuinely ridiculous on-drive played to a ball pitched around a foot outside off-stump.

It was his fastest Test century, a riotous mickey-take of an innings, laced with all the freedom and frivolity we associated with him in his younger, pre-captaincy days. Never again will he endure a sleepless night over some insoluble selection dilemma. Never again will he have to front up at the end of another crushing series defeat to insist his team showed “lots of character”.

Already he looks a different player because of it. For the last five years, Root scored runs because he had to. Here, he looked like a man scoring runs because he could. Frequently Root has made Test batting look easy. But rarely has he made it look this enjoyable.

Of course, this was a gorgeous featherbed of a surface, the same surface upon which New Zealand had so comfortably plundered 553. But go back through the history of this side and a favourable pitch has rarely been a guarantee of very much at all. There are few sides in world cricket more adept at getting bowled out for 250 on a 450 pitch: Sydney and Adelaide on the last two Ashes tours, Old Trafford in 2019, Visakhapatnam and Centurion in 2016.

Joe Root walks off at the end of play 163 not out
Joe Root walks off at the end of play 163 not out. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Since Trevor Bayliss took over as coach in 2015 – generally regarded as the start of English cricket’s Vibes Era – there have been nine occasions when their openers have walked out facing a first-innings total of 400 or more. Only once previously (against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi) did they manage to get even within 100.

So yes, easy runs. But even easy runs have often been beyond England in recent years. And what was notable here was the rate of England’s run-making as much as the volume: a refusal to dig in and sit on a 1-0 lead, a masterclass in playing the conditions and not the scoreboard, a desire not simply to survive but to win. Pope and Alex Lees showed early intent despite both essentially playing for their places. Stokes barely allowed himself a sighter before thwacking the ball to all parts. Even Ben Foakes looked busy and purposeful in the final session.

There are perhaps parallels here with the Lord’s Test of 2015, when Stokes and Root batted England to a famous fifth-day victory over Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand despite conceding 523 in their first innings. It was a victory that felt like an epiphany, a reminder that after a joyless and toxic couple of years, English cricket could still be worthy of our love.

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Hardly anybody remembers that England went on to lose the next Test and draw the series 1-1. What people remember is the abandon, the ambition, the novel sensation of feeling something about this stupid team again.

Now Stokes and McCullum are in cahoots, and here was perhaps the clearest articulation yet of their vision. As stumps were drawn and the last of the spectators filed out of Trent Bridge, merrily singing their Ollie Pope songs, you could tell they weren’t really bothered about the flatness of the pitch, or the future of the 18-county model, or the internal governance of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Instead they looked like people who had bought a lottery ticket and just hit the jackpot.

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