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England v Sri Lanka: Renaissance man Joe Root deserves settled role in middle order


During the many discussions about England's new team, there has been little mention of Joe Root.

Great emphasis has been placed on the importance of the newcomers, and how they must settle immediately. Would Sam Robson be ready to be a Test opener? Could Moeen Ali do the job as an off-spinner and as a batsman? How likely was Chris Jordan to carry his exciting limited-overs form into cricket's most exacting challenge?

There has been similar attention on England's senior men, who must fortify Alastair Cook's captaincy and enable their junior colleagues to prosper. How would Matt Prior's form, and his fragile Achilles tendon, hold up? Should Ian Bell bat one place higher at No 3? Does Jimmy Anderson still possess the zest that made him the world's best swing bowler?

Perhaps because he falls into neither camp, Root's name has been absent from these conversations, yet his shifting status in the side shows how dramatically England have changed since last winter's Ashes horror show.

Root has been an international player for less than two years but no longer can he use youth or inexperience as an excuse for failure. At the conclusion of the first Test against Sri Lanka, Robson, Moeen and Gary Ballance will have only four caps between them at this level. Root will have 16. He might still be only 23 but, nevertheless, it is time to become a man.

While it is too early to make definitive judgements, the signs are that Root can handle the task. He made a clear effort here to make more decisive movements forward, after he found himself trapped on the crease too often in Australia.

During that ill-starred tour, Root became so fearful of making a mistake that he was rendered virtually strokeless. It is far more reassuring when he bats at a breezy tempo and runs sharply between the wickets.

Although Root struck only two boundaries in compiling his first 50 runs, he was never becalmed. He had a clear game plan against the crafty Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka's leading spinner, and was never threatened by their seam attack.

In nearly everything he did, Root looked once again the classy, confident young batsman we admired so much in the early weeks of the last English summer.

Here, though, we must be cautious. Before Australia arrived for the 2013 Ashes, England were so impressed with Root that they promoted him from the middle order to open with Cook, discarding Nick Compton as a result.

The move did not work as, apart from his 180 at Lord's, Root was outwitted by the Australian attack. Life was no better on the Ashes tour, either. The Yorkshire batsman made a fine 87 in the second innings at Adelaide but produced little else, and was dropped for the final Test.

Root has, however, had it tougher than some of his colleagues. He made his debut in India at No 6, began last summer at No 4, opened during the home Ashes, returned to No 6 for a single Test of the Australian series before moving back up to No 3 when Jonathan Trott departed after the loss at Brisbane.

Test cricket is difficult enough as it is. It can be doubly so when you never have a chance to understand its rhythms, because you must learn different roles on the hoof. In his short career, Root has been asked both to set the pattern as an opener, and reshape it from various positions in the middle order. It is a lot to ask, regardless of natural talent.

One innings does not complete Root's renaissance but he deserves to be left at No 5 for the whole summer. Root has been at his best for England in the middle order. So give this highly capable young cricketer the best chance to fulfil his potential by allowing him to define a clear mission for himself in the team. For a coach who preaches simplicity, as Peter Moores does, this is a very easy message to heed.


Shot, ball and moment of the day


Trying to squeeze another wicket at a crucial point in the afternoon, Sri Lanka reintroduced spinner Rangana Herath. His first ball was greeted by Moeen Ali with a slog-cum- drive which sailed over long-on for six. On another day it would have invited disaster; on this day it was perfect.


In the eighth over of the day – pitch still green, ball still new – Nuwan Pradeep brought Ian Bell forward. The delivery landed on the button, moved away, beat Bell all ends up but grazed neither off stump nor outside edge – probably as well since, Prasana Jayawardene grounded it.


The handing out of three new England caps before play by the MCC president, Mike Gatting, to Sam Robson, Moeen Ali and Chris Jordan: an Australian, an Englishman and a Barbadian. But whatever country they hailed from there cannot be a much finer moment than this.

Stephen Brenkley