In the steamy heat of Galle six weeks ago, Jonathan Trott was in his element. Here was an instance of man and occasion being made for each other. England were in pursuit of 340 to win with plenty of time to do it. All they needed was someone to grind it out, stick out his jaw, ignore everything that the opposition hurled at him, whether physically or verbally, and preferably get up their pipes simply by the way he went about his business.
For hour after hour, it seemed as if it might work. Trott went remorselessly on, doing nothing that would be regarded as flamboyant or extravagant or frivolous. It was a serious business and this was the serious man for it. He made 112 over nearly six hours. He faced 266 balls and scratched out his crease-marking for almost every one.
There was not, in the event, to be a happy ending; England lost by 75 runs. A crucial partnership with Matt Prior was broken in unfortunate circumstances – the ball ballooning off short leg's midriff before being caught – and in the sapping heat it seemed to disturb Trott's concentration an iota.
It was the first occasion at the seventh time of asking that England had lost when he scored a hundred. Still, it embodied his soul as an international batsman. He simply does not give it away easily and the hangdog, sometimes perplexed, expression should fool nobody. He is a fiercely competitive man and he is also, it should be noted, the most successful batsman in this team.
Only six England players who have appeared in at least 15 Tests have a high average than Trott's 52.70. They are Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Ken Barrington, Wally Hammond, Len Hutton and Eddie Paynter: a snapshot of greatness through the ages. This is an extremely serious player.
"I think that it helped me to start my Test career slightly later," said Trott last week as he prepared to resume Test duty against West Indies at Lord's on Thursday. "I had learned my own game a bit more, I knew what I could and couldn't do, and what worked for me and what didn't.
"That had come over time playing county cricket, and I owe a lot to county cricket and Warwickshire. I am not saying that it should be the same for everybody. Alastair Cook was in the England team very early and that has happened to others as well. But it has definitely made me a better Test batsman."
He was 22 when he first played for Warwickshire, having spent his early life in South Africa; 26 when he made two appearances in England's Twenty20 side in 2007; 28 by the time he was called up for his Test debut in 2009. He made an imperishable mark in the Fifth Test at The Oval against Australia.
In the first innings he crafted 41 studious runs, and the definitive shot of him diving for his ground vainly trying to avoid being run out was the world sports photograph of the year. Unperturbed, he scored 119 in the second innings and England won the Ashes. There was something inevitable about it in the way he played. That winter we learned something new about Trott. He was increasingly introspective on the tour of South Africa, maybe inhibited by the fact that many perceived him as still being South African himself, and by the end of it he looked so solitary and confused it was possible to fear for his international future.
"I was maybe putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "After scoring that hundred in my first Test, I thought for a while I should be scoring a hundred in every match. I wondered if everybody expected me to score a hundred in every match.
"But I thought it was kind of forgotten as well that at Centurion I batted almost all day to help save that match. It was just really from my second Test to my fifth, but it probably did help me recognise that you can get too absorbed and expect too much of yourself."
Then in Bangladesh Trott could not shake off the feeling that the demands of international cricket might prove too much. By the start of the next summer he disproved that theory forever. He made 226 at Lord's, and if by the end of the innings he was not as in command as some observers felt he ought to have been, it was an authentic Test innings. As have been the others since. By last August he had become such a model of sustained dependability that he won the award as world cricketer of the year.
"It's not something that I expected ever, I guess, and it's not something I think about now," he said. "Maybe in the years ahead I can look back at that and think, 'Well, I wasn't bad'."
He is not everybody's idea of a Test No 3 because it is the blue riband batting position, occupied by some of the game's most grandiose players. When he was injured last year and Ian Bell temporarily filled the position, Bell made 235 of the most stylish runs imaginable at The Oval. To compare was odious – Trott could not have played that innings in half a lifetime. But he has brought an air of reliability, of refusing to be passed. With experience has come awareness of his reputation and he has come to terms with this.
"I know you have to know what the team wants. You can't get into being selfish, if you like. There are periods when you can score faster but the idea of playing shots for the sake of it isn't what I'm about. You have to try to judge the tempo but you also need different types of players."
Trott's sedate, unfussy pace of scoring has not endeared him to everyone in a world where many people want everything to happen instantly. Perhaps it is not the rate but that there seems to be one gear. But he has scored his Test runs so far at a faster rate than Graham Thorpe, Robin Smith and Ted Dexter, none of them exactly imbued with the reputation of plodders. He scores more quickly than the most illustrious digger-in of recent times, Paul Collingwood. It is simply that he looks as if he does not.
He is undoubtedly under pressure in one-day cricket. But even in that arena he has shown the importance of having a batsman around whom the others can play. In the World Cup last year he merely kept going, impervious to interference.
He was 31 last month, entering the batsman's prime. There is less of the bemused look about him now, the man who is never quite sure he has pleased everybody. He is settled, lent perspective by a wife who keeps his feet on the ground and the birth of a daughter.
As for England, the world's No 1 Test side, they were reminded of their fragility in the winter, losing 3-0 to Pakistan and drawing 1-1 with Sri Lanka. "I don't know if it was a wake-up call but we knew things had gone wrong," he said. "But I thought it was important that we still stayed strong as a unit." A unit in which Jonathan Trott has become as fundamental as his batting.
Investec, specialist bank and asset manager, sponsors Test cricket in England. Visit Investec Cricket Zone at www.investec.co.uk/cricket for stats, analysis and cricket games
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