Seven Wisden writers explain why what they think is the best innings played by Joe Root in Test cricket is actually top of the tree.
The performance of Joe Root in his side’s 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka will have soothed the nerves of those fearing the worst ahead of a defining year for his captaincy.
After 2020 passed by as Root’s first full year as a Test cricketer without making a hundred, two have flowed in two games to kick off 2021 in style.
After a lean patch, the right-hander looked back to his best, showing himself to be as fluent player of spin as any England have had in recent times. The wins gave England five consecutive Test victories away from home for the first time in over 100 years, and confirmed a rare period of dominance in an Asian country, with England now having won five on the bounce in Sri Lanka too.
It led to discussion over whether one of Root’s two hundreds might be his best knock in Test cricket. There are certainly plenty to choose from. Despite concerns over his conversion rate, Root is now just four tons off second place in England’s overall Test centuries chart.
We asked seven of our writers, across Wisden India, Wisden.com and Wisden Cricket Monthly, to argue for their pick as Root’s top innings. So far, of course, because, as England fans will hope after his Sri Lanka heroics, the best might be yet to come.
228 v Sri Lanka, Galle, 2021
Picked by James Wallace (Wisden staff writer)
England are set to play 17 Test matches in 2021, the meat of which will be home and away bouts against India. That’ll be the same India who will be replete with Virat and Jasprit and Hardik and Ishant but also with a batch of rising stars, newcomers who have not only swum to the top of their billion and a half strong ginormo-talent pool but are also fresh on the back of that series win against Australia.
Then there’s a couple against New Zealand, current holders of the top ranking, their ‘minnow’ tag tossed overboard long ago. And of course, looming round the year’s U-bend like a hulking great fatberg is the old enemy, the Aussies on their own turf.
Two Tests against Sri Lanka to get the whole the show on the road? You could have been forgiven for thinking this brace of games would serve merely as ‘acclimatisers’ for the events to follow. They turned out to be much more than that.
Momentum and form are two fickle beasts that are especially hard to conquer once you find yourself on the wrong side of them. With his own batting and his team’s fortunes inextricably linked it was vital for Root to re-capture some of the glory of his nascent youth and start the year-long campaign well.
To Galle then. Shorn of his surfer locks, gap-year-tragic Alice band surely consigned to the incinerator for evermore, Root got his reverse-Samson on. And his reverse-sweep, and his lap sweep, and his paddle sweep and his slog sweep. Samson was said to have slain a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey, Root used a two-and-a-bit pound piece of willow slathered in New Balance stickers (coveted by the irrepressible Dickwella as heard on the stump mic) to exact death by a thousand sweeps on the Sri Lankans. It was a stark reminder of his talent.
In a year’s time we’ll be looking back to Galle to trace where it all began.
130 v Australia, Trent Bridge, 2015
Picked by Phil Walker (WCM editor-in-chief)
This is my favourite, though I’ll always have a soft spot for his 98 at Lord’s against New Zealand, also in 2015, when he and Stokes put on 161 in a couple of hours to dance England out of a slump. If that one set up the summer, then this jaunty masterpiece completed it. Coming on the back of Stuart Broad’s joke eight-for on the first morning, he’d finish the first day 124*, more than double the entire Australian first innings.
The context was big enough – England stood to regain the Ashes if they won – but the innings itself transcended such trifles. Coming in at 31-2, he ambled to 24 from 23 balls, with the following boundaries: back-cut (rolling wrists); on-drive (pose held); leg glance; controlled hook (two men back); cover drive (one knee); punch through mid-wicket. He brought up his fifty with his 10th boundary, his hundred with his 17th, and went to the close with a bashfully slog-swept six. He was out almost immediately on the second morning, though it barely registered. He would finish the match way out in front as the No.1 ranked batsman in the world.
110 v South Africa, Johannesburg, 2016
Picked by Jo Harman (WCM magazine editor)
A victory best remembered for Stuart Broad’s whirlwind spell of 5-1 and James Taylor’s outrageous grabs at Boot Hill was made possible by a masterclass from Root, coming off the back of landmark 2015 during which he had become officially the best batsman in the world. This was Root’s ninth Test hundred, just a fortnight after his 25th birthday, and was expertly constructed on lively deck against a South African attack spearheaded by Rabada and Morkel.
England’s first innings was in trouble at 22-2 when Root arrived at the crease, but he appeared to be playing on a different pitch as he eased to a half-century and then motored from 50 to 100 at better than a run a ball, a picture-perfect cover drive off Chris Morris taking him to three figures. His stand of 111 in 15 overs with Ben Stokes turned the match on its head and by late-afternoon on day three Broad had torn through the hosts to give England an unassailable lead in the series, away from home to the world’s No.1 ranked Test team.
190 v South Africa, Lord’s, 2017
Picked by Aadya Sharma (Wisden India editor)
Captaincy debuts don’t get any better. In his maiden outing as skipper, Root was at his authoritative best, taking on South Africa’s bowling might with a fluent counter-attack.
Despite walking in at 17-2, Root’s first scoring shot was a fierce uppercut off Rabada, followed by an instinctive hook over fine leg’s head. Those two strokes set the tone for the entire innings, one that perfectly demonstrated his extremely flexible scoring methods.
South Africa’s quicks Morkel, Philander and Rabada were guilty of straying on the legs too often, and Root continued to flick them away in glee, each one of those silken glances inviting plenty of cheers from the packed Lord’s crowd. Even when he was well past his 150, the drives and punches were just as picturesque.
Against Maharaj, he was almost impulsively reading the lengths, wristily driving through square or flicking with ease off his pads. There was a bit of luck along the way too; a stumping off a no-ball was reversed, but nothing that day took away the sheen off a truly peerless knock.
180 v Australia, Lord’s, 2013
Picked by Rohit Sankar (Wisden India staff writer)
“I remember being on about 10 and nicking one between first slip and the keeper and thinking ‘I’ve got to make the most of this.”
The 2013 Ashes series was a tricky one for Joe Root. He was still in the honeymoon phase of his career, struggling a tad to catch up with expectations when he was thrown into the deep end and asked to open the batting against the Aussies. Root made 30 and 5 at Trent Bridge and 6 in the first innings at Lord’s.
With England having a sizeable lead, he came out in the second innings and watched the side crumble to 30-3. Root went from surviving to attacking, completing his third fifty in just 64 balls, and showed a different dimension to his Test match batting. It wasn’t his most fluent innings throughout, but it showed he was versatile enough to take international cricket by storm in the decade to come.
98 v New Zealand, Lord’s, 2015
Picked by Taha Hashim (Wisden.com features editor)
English cricket is entering a new era after a disastrous World Cup campaign, with head coach Peter Moores losing his job just days before the first Test of the summer. Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand – the darlings of the neutrals – are in town, and their talismanic leader chooses to bowl first on a green Lord’s pitch. It looks a masterful call: England are reduced to 30-4, with Boult, Southee and Henry in control.
But so is Joe Root, the sparky, smiling kid who doesn’t need long to settle. In cahoots with Ben Stokes, he brushes off any notion of a crisis, bringing up a half-century from just 53 balls. When Stokes goes berserk at the other end – eventually finishing on 92 from 94 balls – Root drops his tempo, as if he wants to let the showman do his thing. There’s no hundred, but it’s as masterful as any of his other three-figure scores.
If some might quibble about it being Root’s best innings, it’s certainly his most symbolic: he comes to England’s rescue, has runs on the board before you’ve had time to blink, fails to convert a fifty into a hundred, and he’s somewhat overshadowed by Stokes, a player of more memorable knocks. Oh, and it’s brilliant too.
124 v Sri Lanka, Pallekele, 2018
Picked by Ben Gardner (Wisden.com managing editor)
This one ticks all the boxes an innings needs to be designated ‘great’. Away from home, first-innings lead conceded, sparse top-order help – England were effectively 63-4 after Ben Stokes was lbw – and against a skilful attack on a helpful pitch. In a way, it’s ironic that England’s dominance over Sri Lanka has taken the sheen of each successive victory, but this was still a team that had just and would soon again beat South Africa 2-0, and drew 1-1 with New Zealand not long after that.
Recognising the treachery of the situation, Root danced down the track and took the game to Sri Lanka. But the true brilliance of the innings was not in Root’s own play, but in how he pulled his team along in his slipstream. There was Rory Burns, in his second Test, ticking along at close to 90. There was Moeen Ali, slog-sweeping his second ball for six.
That Sri Lanka series win was a wonderfully heady time, with England pioneering a new way of playing, based on all-round contributions and an all-for-one mentality. For a brief period, it really did seem like ‘Total Cricket’, with Root at his best and his side playing in his image, could help England conquer the world. Of course, it all came crashing down in the West Indies a couple of months later, but just because Roston Chase’s non-turners had other ideas doesn’t make that moment any less beautiful.