By Dominic Farrell
A daunting scoreboard deficit, a snarling bowling attack with their tails up and the probability of a 2-0 series deficit – Test match cricket throws up sets of circumstances to examine the skill and character of those involved unlike any other sport.
On the sharp end of this situation on day four of the second Ashes Test in Adelaide, England batsman Joe Root prospered across 269 minutes of judicious strokeplay and substance.
Barring a monumental effort from Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, the England tail and the local cloud cover, Root’s well-constructed 87 will be a footnote to a richly deserved second consecutive triumph for Michael Clarke’s on-form Australia.
But much of what the 22-year-old Yorkshireman defiantly produced could point the way to success for some of his more senior colleagues as the battle for the famous urn enters the festive period.
Before Mitchell Johnson’s burst of dramatic destruction on the third afternoon, Root had seen off the paceman’s opening morning spell only to depart on the slog-sweep to Nathan Lyon.
He would fall to the off-spin in unfortunate circumstance this time around but, by that point, Root had made his mark.
The watchful nature of his second knock in England’s pivotal number three position displayed a man placing a huge value on his wicket. Australia were going to have to work hard to prize him from the crease.
During the best moments of his fledgling international career, a technique to leave the purists purring has been Root’s calling card and he threaded some particularly pleasing boundaries on the back foot against seam and spin, finding a useful third-wicket ally in Kevin Pietersen.
One punch through the covers off Johnson after tea was particularly pleasing and Root appeared to find almost perverse enjoyment in facing Australia’s searing spearhead.
On the occasions Root offered a false stroke, Johnson fumed and headed down the pitch to offer his assessments to the youngster. This was routinely greeted by a now familiar smirk and a giggle.
To be clear, this was not the nervous laughter that would be a best-case scenario for you or I if a hard, red lump was hurled towards us at around 95 mph – Root was genuinely entertained and amused by elements of his duel with Johnson.
Nobody will again be fooled by that angelic face. Beneath lies a hard-bitten Test cricketer, as it is only them who revel in such confrontations.
Root versus Johnson recalled the exploits of an England top-order stalwart from the other side of the Pennines.
The 1990s were an unforgiving place for opening batsmen, an era in which type of the terror Johnson has wrought upon the current England line-up seemed more prevalent.
On the back of a tenderising from Allan Donald, former England captain Michael Atherton would turn his attentions towards Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram and a host of others in no particular bruising order.
Like Root in Adelaide, these were the battles Atherton relished the most, although he would not tell the bowlers at the time. The more vocal his opponents, the more placid he would appear as he stared blankly back down the track.
When Mark Boucher dropped Atherton in the midst of a match-winning innings against South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1998, Donald appeared on the brink of combustion. The Lancastrian looked unemotionally on and it became one of the defining images of both men’s stellar careers.
Johnson’s supreme efforts in this series so far mean he has already etched many moments into cricket’s collective psyche. Today in Adelaide, Joe Root chuckled his way to one of his own.