“Do you have a spare?” Niroshan Dickwella asked Joe Root of his bats during the morning session.
Sri Lanka’s wicketkeeper enjoys a natter: he once used Google Translate to learn some Urdu to distract Pakistan’s batsmen during a series a few years ago. But as the England captain went on through to the close of day three for 186, a mischievous attempt to break concentration might have desired a serious answer. Any piece of Root is worth a hell of a lot right now.
That Root won’t pick up his innings for the third day in a row owes to a fantastic bit of fielding which tilted the second Test back Sri Lanka’s ways after much back and forth. Maintaining concentration around the bat till the end, Oshada Fernando had his wits about him to gather a defensive shot and break the stumps at the striker’s end with Root having pressed a couple of steps out of his crease. Their lead is 42, just Jack Leach or James Anderson left to dismiss.
If anything, the final ball of another engaging three sessions of Test cricket put a greater emphasis on Root’s value to England. Following 228 out of 421 in the first innings of the first Test, Root was again responsible for more than half of England’s 339 so far, with back-to-back centuries for the first time in his career. Reconvening his innings on 67, the team on 98 for two trailing by 283, punching gloves with seven partners for 121 more of his own, he brought hope to a bleak situation.
Century number 19 came off a brisk 139 balls with 14 boundaries in total. Jonny Bairstow (28) and Dan Lawrence (three) were gone by then, the first two of Lasith Emuldeniya’s five wickets on the day. A late afternoon slowdown that spilt into the evening saw Root return to the realm of man, moving beyond 150 with a firm sweep a lengthy 118 later.
The knock saw Kevin Pietersen and David Gower passed as Root moved up to fourth on the all-time run-scoring list with 8,328. A couple of switch-hits struck perfectly through what would have been orthodox midwicket for a left-hander were nods to both. But maybe that’s just twee nonsense to this Joe Root.
Because this does feel like a different brand. An iteration with insatiable bloodlust for runs. Not just a boy becoming a man, but developing a bloodlust that has been absent from his nine years to date. His bat has contributed 49.6 per cent of England’s runs in this series so far, and no amount of Dickwella charm will see him part with that one.
The two hundreds in 2021 already put Root on course to better previous best returns of three in 2015 and 2016, with 15 Tests and potentially 31 innings to play. Those years also featured 10 unconverted scores of 50 or more.
He combatted the rough, he negotiated the bounce and he even overcame his body’s limitations. Cramps and spasms provided reminders of mortality in a super-human effort on another humid day in Galle. with temperatures reaching up to 32-degrees centigrade. A combination of bananas and energy gels kept him going from lunch. Upon the wicket of Dom Bess 20 minutes before stumps, the physiotherapist came out to the middle to tend to Root only for his back to momentarily spasm. The first real signs that carrying the batting line-up was causing physical discomfort.
When Sri Lanka finally drew a mistake from him, 287 deliveries in, it flew low between keeper and first slip. The second, which caught Root short of energy and his ground, was taken with relish. Finally vanquished after six hours and 15 minutes after coming in at seven for two on Saturday afternoon.
Jos Buttler and Bess were key allies on Sunday, offering valuable support in stands of 97 and 80 respectively, the latter all the more crucial for whittling two hours out of the game. Regardless if the final wicket chips off the remaining 42 runs for parity, this will be a second-innings shootout with the hosts likely to steal an edge. Going last on a pitch that’s about to turn untrustworthy means any chase above 150 will be in Sri Lanka’s favour.
Buttler mimicked Root’s early strike rate with sweeps and reverse sweeps of his own. Both made it to lunch with England a crisp 200 behind, and a back-cut after the break gave the wicketkeeper his 18th half-century. The prevailing sense at the time was these two could knock off the deficit on their own.
But they were only able to get it down to 152 by the time Buttler was dismissed. A reverse sweep finally went wrong, an under-edge bouncing off his left boot and taken by Fernando at short leg, giving debutant Ramesh Mendis his first wicket.
With the stand broken three short of three figures, the free-scoring was reined in. Only 16 runs were scored off the next 10 overs before Sam Curran danced down and smashed Dilruwan Perera for England’s first six of the innings. Having survived an LBW shout two deliveries before the hit, Curran was seen off, caught at slip by Thirimanne to give Emuldeniya his third five-wicket haul.
Tea only exacerbated the feeling this was Root or bust. Sri Lanka’s hold on the game that little bit stronger with a 129 lead that could only be impacted by four more partnerships.
By first of those was the most frustrating. Bess’s 85-ball stay, a positive for his involvement in India after a difficult first innings with the ball, was broken by Embuldeniya, caught comfortably at first slip two balls after a low one at second was adjudged to have hit the ground first. Mark Wood’s slog sweep for some quick late runs gave the 24-year old a career-best seven wickets (currently for 132) through a fifth combination with Thirimanne.
Embuldeniya has been Sri Lanka’s primary threat throughout, asked for 41 out of the 114.2 overs so far. It would be deserving of his efforts to round out with an eighth on Monday. He will have a huge say in England’s second innings. But no more so than Root.