“Now this is the life,” sighed the old man behind me in the Radcliffe Road stand. It cost £40 to get in on Monday, and you got a lot for the money, Jimmy Anderson’s 650th Test wicket, a back-of-the-hand run out by Ben Stokes, three different fifties, and best yet, a 20-minute stretch watching Joe Root finish his latest masterpiece innings. Root only made 13 runs on top of his 163 from the previous evening but if it was all you watched you would still have left happy. If the price seems steep for such a brief bit of cricket, I promise it was worth every penny and more for a glimpse of him in this sort of form.
Right now Root is batting as well as any Englishman ever has, better, even, than he did last year when broke all England’s records and scored 1,708 runs and six Test centuries. You have to leaf back through an awful lot of copies of the Wisden Almanac to find the last time there was anything quite like it in English cricket, past Ian Bell reeling off three centuries in the 2013 Ashes, past Kevin Pietersen spraying switch hits and reverse sixes around the grounds in the 2007, past Michael Vaughan’s 900-run summer in 2002, and further still, past Graham Gooch’s 333 in 1990, and David Gower carving up Australia in the 1985 Ashes. Maybe just keep going all the way until you reach Denis Compton’s record-breaking year in 1948.
Root has reached that very rare stage in a sportsman’s life where he’s become such a master of his craft that he’s made the game his plaything. On Monday morning he decided, apparently on a whim, to hit a reverse ramp over the top of the slips for six off Tim Southee. “As current players we have the ability to rewrite the coaching manual,” Root said before the start of play. They really don’t. But he really does. Which isn’t to say some of the rest of them couldn’t play that same shot, but that they wouldn’t be able to thread it together with all the technically correct strokes he played either side, the crisp cover drives, clean leg glances, and impenetrable forward defensives.
It’s his complete mastery of orthodox technique that allows him to improvise like this. It’s because he understands all the rules that he knows how to break them. Root’s so fluent at batting that he can do it any which way he chooses, he can play it as straight as Geoff Boycott or as silly as Jos Buttler. There is a real artistry to that, even, if you’ll allow it in a sportsman, a touch of genius. And if that seems like I’m straining then remember there aren’t enough words to capture the way he’s playing, any more than there are enough fielders to contain him.
It’s not just the runs, it’s the relish with which he’s going about it. It gets infectious. In the stands people laugh and cry and gasp and sigh, his own teammates end up grinning like idiots at him, and the old pros in the commentary box end up giggling like giddy little children. The only disappointed ones were those that came in just too late. “Noooo,” exhaled the man who slumped down beside me when he realised Root had just been caught at cover, fooled by a slower ball, while he was walking up to his seat. Root groaned too. You’ve never seen a man so furious at himself for making 170.
That’s how well he’s playing. Almost every innings a batsman plays ends in failure sooner or later, but Root’s in such touch that he still seemed surprised by it, and blamed himself for making a mistake, as if he knows that at the moment his own carelessness is the only thing that was ever going to get the better of him.
The good news for him, and everyone else, is that the way the game’s heading there’s a good chance Root will be back out there again on Tuesday, when it’s free entry. If he does bat then everyone who turns up will always be able to say they were there, and had a little share in his summer, which will be talked about for as long as they’re playing the game. There are five Tests left this season, and one more innings in this one, so he maybe has 11 left to play. Go. Who knows how long the streak will go on. But wherever else you might head this summer, whether it’s Wimbledon for the tennis, St Andrews for the golf, or Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games, you won’t see another athlete who is so close to the pinnacle of their sport. Root is right out there now, on the very furthest reaches of brilliance.