Joe Root’s superb 218 gives England commanding position against India

A couple of moments during a draining second day in Chennai rather summed up where Joe Root’s head is at, the zone that the England captain finds himself in during his 100th Test match and a remarkable start to 2021.

The first came just before tea when he twinkle-toed down the pitch and propelled Ravichandran Ashwin for a handsome six over long-on. So consumed by his current thirst for runs and the tunnel vision that has descended over him, Root had not clocked that he had just brought up his fifth Test match double-century until a ripple of applause echoed around the empty Chepauk Stadium.

The second came after the interval, Root trudging off the field shaking his head after being trapped lbw by Shahbaz Nadeem for 218. Ollie Pope had just been similarly removed by Ashwin for 34 and though Root might have forgiven himself for one lapse of concentration after nine and a half hours at the crease as Virat Kohli generously patted him on the back, the score flicking from 473 for four to 477 for six was a source of much annoyance.

Having spoken of targeting 600-plus the previous evening, when he sat 128 not out, Root clearly felt that his demise had offered India a chance of keeping such lofty ambitions in check. But while Ishant Sharma, the warhorse of their attack, did wipe out Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer in the space of two reverse-swinging deliveries, England’s goal remained possible when they closed on 555 for eight.

With vice-captain Ben Stokes having earlier marked his return to the side after a six-month absence by taking on India’s spinners in an aggressive 82 from 118 balls, and the pitch throwing up the odd gremlin, it represented a commanding follow-up performance by the tourists. The day had started with the score on 263 for three and, though it would be uncharacteristic if India did not come back hard, Root’s tourists have begun their tour with a statement.

Root’s glowing bat is clearly behind this. The 30-year-old has 644 runs at 128 already in 2021, he now sits third in England’s all-time charts after passing Alec Stewart’s career tally of 8,463, and he has become just the second captain in history, after Don Bradman, to make scores of 150-plus in three successive Test matches. If his cricket-loving grandfather back in Dore had not already claimed the name, Don Root might have a chance of sticking on current form.

A quiet first half to the winter appears to have allowed Root time to finesse his technique, improve his fitness and refresh his mind. The result is that in the sapping heat of Asia he has batted for 300 or more balls three times in the space of 18 days, something done just three times in his career previously. Once again he swept with authority but this has been about the return of his Sheffield steel.

Root was certainly content to play second fiddle in the morning as Stokes emerged from his break in typically bristling form. Though fortunate to survive a 10-ball duck when a searing yorker from Jasprit Bumrah missed leg stump by millimetres, the left-hander guided a smart cut for four next up and in the following over deposited Ashwin for an effortless six that signalled his intentions.

India’s refreshed spinners were causing problems outside the off stump, however, and Virat Kohli did not mind Stokes driving. So the all-rounder decided to start sweeping hard, both orthodox and reverse, to disrupt the plans. Two tough chances went to ground in the space of three balls – Ashwin off his own bowling and Cheteshwar Pujara diving at midwicket – and a review was burned. But Stokes, unbeaten on 63 when lunch arrived at 355 for three, was not mucking about.

Having brought up his half-century off 73 balls with back-to-back reverse sweeps off Ashwin, Stokes pumped his third six of the day after the interval.

But when he attempted a fourth by slog-sweeping the left-armer Nadeem, the ball flew to Pujara in the deep for a juggling effort that just about stuck. A 124-run stand with Root was broken, the captain having chipped in just 40 of them.

The new SG ball unveiled for this series was talked up as being one that would stay harder for longer. But as the afternoon wore on it began to resemble a raggedy old Hacky Sack as Root and Pope, slightly rusty in his first appearance since shoulder surgery in September, made India toil once more. Kohli burned his final two reviews during their 86-run alliance, summing up the desperation.

These rash calls came back to haunt India’s captain following the removals of Pope and Root after tea, with Buttler handed a life on 18 when the umpire Anil Chaudhary declined an impassioned (and ultimately justified) appeal for caught behind by the otherwise negated Washington Sundar. Sharma at least ensured it was not overly costly when the now reversing SG bowled the wicketkeeper when leaving and then detonated Archer’s off stump first ball.

Now suddenly on a hat-trick with Jack Leach the new man, Sharma underlined a regular feature of his side’s struggles over the course of two days as the klaxon that indicates a front-foot no-ball honked once more. Another has been the lack of maidens – just 22 among their 180 overs in the dirt – while further frustration followed when Dom Bess was lousily dropped by Rohit Sharma on 19 during an impish unbeaten 28 before the close.

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