The criticisms of Joe Root, of a poor conversion rate of half-centuries to full ones, and an on-field manner more guardian than leader, has consistently drawn calls of one “simple” remedy. To be more selfish.
In a team sport and as a captain, it is not the most holistic advice. But cricket is a game where the best players - specifically, batters - are the most self-absorbed, and successful captains are those who take underperformance around them personally. As South African legend Jacques Kallis put it earlier in the week, his 13,389 Test runs and 45 centuries came, fundamentally, because he “hated losing”.
It will take more ego and time for Root to get near those numbers. But as he sits at stumps on day two undefeated with an 18th century in the book, 8,000 career runs a few glances away and his team “winning” on 320 for four, perhaps he is taking the hint from England’s batting consultant on this tour.
Having gone without a three-figure score in 13 innings last year, Root has started 2021 with one of 168 and potential for more. His eighth score over 150 is now the highest score by an English batsman in Sri Lanka, surpassing Kevin Pietersen’s 151 in Colombo from 2012. In turn, England converted a deficit of eight to a commanding lead of 185, despite rain chopping off the top and bottom of day two. For that, Root had assistance from debutant Dan Lawrence who pitched in with an assured 73 in a 173-run stand for the third wicket.
There’s a lot to know of this 23-year-old. And based on the composure shown during his first 150 deliveries at this level, plenty of time to get up to speed. Much is pinned to him as this quintessential Essex type: bold, flashy with an eye for the camera. We caught a glimpse of that when he stepped out and dropped to one knee to slog-sweep Sri Lanka’s best bowler Lasith Embuldeniya for six, taking the partnership to fifty. The pose was held for so long, Sky’s remote production team might have thought to restart their router.
Those traits were also evident in how he adjusted and adapted to the situation, worked with rather than against the pitch and went about his business with unshakeable confidence. Of course, as with all successful upstarts, there were moments of impunity, such as the leading edge that pierced second slip’s hands when on 60 and the dine-and-dash waft not long after, on 68.
That Lawrence is now another young thing to come into the side and excel, after Dom Bess, also 23, picked up five wickets on Thursday, is a nod to that Root selflessness. Not just that he is one of the best around to bat with, straightforward in his approach, right down to the unfussy, wholesome technique that you’d take home to introduce to your parents but not necessarily date.
But also by creating environment where new those new through the dressing room door feel emboldened to take on responsibility. 2020, while a relative aberration for him (he still averaged 42) saw five different players score centuries, including firsts for Dom Sibley, Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley, and every series won.
And so it was only right to seem him profit off that in a more meaningful way. The weight off his shoulders meant the feet were that little more dexterous, forward and back but never in-between, milking Sri Lanka to all corners of the ground. He slapped and swept with both freedom and security, pulling out a dab two balls after lunch to move to his century from 163 deliveries. He has singularly outscored the opposition's first innings of 135, a feat more pronounced given Grant Flower’s words at stumps on day one.
Among the lashes dished out by the Sri Lanka batting coach to his hapless team came a warning: a pitch already turning and losing the odd chunk “will get worse”. If it did, it was pretty hard to tell. Partly because of how Root and Lawrence settled, but more because they were allowed to with very little resistance.
Like seamers on green decks and swing bowlers under thick cloud, the fundamentals of spin on wearing surfaces are the same. To pitch the ball in the same spot, vary pace if you can and let the roulette wheel pitch decide what each delivery is going to produce. Easier said than done, but simplicity has been a staple of Sri Lanka slow bowling that for all the talk of mystery is just control, no gimmicks.
That was severely lacking here, and why they returned just one wicket in each of the Friday's two sessions. The first came early: Jonny Bairstow dismissed eight balls into the day for his overnight score of 47. Embuldeniya with his third wicket of the innings, drawing the right-hander forward and getting one to spin enough to catch an edge to gully.
The inconsistency meant pressure was hard to build. Lawrence, for example, was afforded a risk-free start, gifted the first of his seven boundaries – a full toss from Dilruwan Perera – which took England into the lead. Root and Lawrence were able to rotate the strike with ease (67 of their 173 runs together came in singles). So far, there have only been eight maidens across 94 overs this innings.
There is scope for the hosts to claw back some initiative. The new ball is just 14 overs old, and the extra bounce it provided caught the glove of Lawrence to give Kusal Mendis a catch at short leg.
But they will need more of the bad weather and less of good England to escape this Test with anything other than defeat. After two perfect days, and with Root and Jos Buttler (seven not out) to continue on Saturday, the tourists are fully in control of the elements and the match.