Your marquee all-rounder sent for a scan. Your wicketkeeper/number five/one of the few success stories in the recent years hobbles off during the game of warm-up football. Test captains can’t have endured worse days on the evening of a match that has a series and a couple of careers riding on it.
Perhaps that’s why Joe Root decided to postpone the formalities of his press engagements by around 45 minutes to have a net session once the rest of England’s batsmen had cleared off. There has been a lot of fretting on Thursday and this week. He needed some time to himself.
What we know for certain is that a call will be made on Ben Stokes on Friday morning, which will in turn dictate the balance of England’s XI for this must-win match to square the series. Surrey allrounder Sam Curran has been drafted in as cover and, just to be certain, Pakistan’s batsmen spent time training against bowling and throw downs from a left-arm angle. Stokes could yet play as a batsman only. Jonny Bairstow’s knee is not a worry. He re-emerged with strapping, looked a bit sorry for himself and continued on with his prep.
Most of Root’s morning was spent milling around the Headingley outfield, stopping for a conversation with head coach Trevor Bayliss and national selector Ed Smith, who teased the press pack with a few fidgets of his phone. On a couple of occasions, Root was in deep conversation with Stuart Broad; without being privy to what was said, it looked like the sort of chat that was to be followed by news of Broad’s axing. Alas, Root was not swayed by the words of his mentor and confidant Michael Vaughan earlier in the week.
“He’s a bit disappointed at the minute,” started Root on Broad. “Frank Lampard has gone for the Derby job instead of the Forest job. He thought he could be the next Brian Clough!” Light relief. It seems there was little to tell beyond two senior players annoyed by their lots ahead of a match that could define them and their side.
“No, look – me and Stuart were just talking about things in terms of how we want the game to go this week. More than anything, just being quite honest and talking about where we need to get better as ag group. It wasn’t a one-on-one chat on where he’s at or anything like that.”
No thoughts on dropping him then, skip? “I think his bowling is in a good place. He’s probably not where he wanted to be in terms of wickets but he’s where he was at the back end of last year with the changes he’s made to his action. He looks like a completely different bowler and I look at last week as an off-week [Broad took one wicket in 28 overs of graft] and I see this as a great chance now to be back at his best, just as he performed in Christchurch.”
It is worth revisiting Christchurch – specifically two Broad moments: his spell which snapped the head of New Zealand clean off in the first innings to leave them 36 for five and the nut to get Kane Williamson in the second to leave them 339 behind. Of course, England didn’t go on to win the match or save that series. But both moments, fleeting as they were, gave a brief hint that this side were turning a corner. And in those moments, they believed it too. Brittle confidence works both ways.
It is those flashes that fuel Root’s belief in this side and the reason that, when it is put to him that maybe England – unspectacular, inconsistent, fifth in the ICC Test rankings – need to be realistic and accept they are a middling Test side, he takes it as a sleight and immediately bites back. With interest.
“You look at the players we’ve got! You tell me that World Class isn’t a world class player – someone that can win you a game with the bat or the ball. Look at someone like Dawid (Malan) and the way he played in Perth – that’s an unbelievable Test match hundred against a really good attack. There’s plenty of evidence across the board that we’ve got the players, it’s just going out and doing it consistently well over long periods of time. Simple as that.”
He also defended Bayliss, arguing that there is little need for change, echoing James Anderson’s on Wednesday which took the blame for England’s malaise away from the Australian. “Ultimately we – the players – have to play better.”
With regards to other selection matters, the way in which England’s and Pakistan’s batsmen cleared the shorter straight boundary during practice might tempt Root et al to do without off-spinner Dom Bess. However, the pitch, a day out, looks flat and will almost certainly take turn if there are dry conditions over the next few days. The aridness of the field will also promote reverse swing, which Pakistan used effectively on the third day at Lord’s.
Moreover, Root has a chance to give himself some breathing room as Test captain. What awaits is a couple of months of limited overs cricket before the first of five Tests against India, which begin from August 1. As Root says himself, he does not want to look back and worry about what he could’ve done. He has spoken at length about the way he wants his team to play. Now would be a great time to see it.