During day one of cricket’s return to Channel Four in a studio made on the hoof like all our home offices in the last year, host Rishi Persad used his studio guest to put the broadcast into context.
Since Rudi Koertzen knocked off the bails at the Oval to confirm England’s 2005 Ashes win and the end of free-to-air Test cricket for the long, foreseeable future, Alastair Cook had come and gone. All of 161 caps, 12,472 runs – signed, sealed and knighted before an unanticipated late twist in television rights dealings brought the game back to the people. Here was Cook, the lone expert voice alongside Persad, a Sir and now a pundit squeezed into an armchair a little too small for him.
You do not have to dismiss the stellar work of Sky to understand the inherent sadness that one of English cricket’s modern greats might have bypassed so many. Not so much the diehards, but the lapsed casuals and passing glancers who help sports permeate the wide world’s distractions. And you can pass this off as twee nonsense while appreciating how significant it may prove to be that a cricketer on his way to becoming England’s greatest seized this moment for something like this.
On Friday, Joe Root, the England captain, marked his 100th Test cap with a century. Only eight other players have achieved one milestone with the other, with Root now the third Englishman on that list. Few have done so with such timing, in every sense, even if the Chennai pitch was one to book yourself in on ahead of time. One that sees England’s 263 for three as a good start rather than a winning one.
A few days earlier, Root spoke of watching that final day against Australia some 16 years ago, sickness keeping him out of school and lodged in front of the television. By then he was already well into the game, of course. But for those forced to stay indoors as the majority of us are, flicking over and seeing a knock of this magnitude – Root’s third hundred in as many Tests this year, no less – will have brought warm, unfamiliar light.
And context, importantly. Root’s is a method based wholly around simplicity and, thus, easy to follow. The deliberateness of his feet and hands will have alerted the uninitiated that this is a pursuit of judgement and patience. The joy slow-burning, unlike 2019’s World Cup final, but just as long-lasting. The celebrations when he ticked over three figures after 234 deliveries of absorbing pressure and the energy required to pick England up from a lowly position of 63 for two said so. As did the graphic that popped up soon after highlighting a 20th century, a 69th score above fifty in 182 innings.
They may have even appreciated how vital it is to have able support at the other end. Dom Sibley offered that throughout, a diligent ally to the team as much as Root. He began the day out in the middle but fell to its final ball, with 87 of his own and a mammoth 286 balls faced. The third-wicket stand of 200 was as much on his shoulders, building on an unbeaten 56 not out from the previous Test in Sri Lanka to slash any talk of unsuitability in turning conditions.
Theirs was a partnership in keeping with Channel Four’s usual offerings through the morning hours. Very much the odd couple in a live studio audience comedy. Root the classy, happy-go-lucky star of the show who comes out on top in the end. Sibley his gangly best mate, all elbows, misreading an invite and turning up at a funeral dressed as an Ewok. Or, in this case, undone by a yorker from Jasprit Bumrah. As with those set-ups, it wouldn’t work without both of them.
As Root walked off, unbeaten on 128, it was no happy ending. With four days to go and India’s own batting to come, a competitive score is north of 450. But as far as first episodes go, there was plenty to lock you in for the series.
The day started well. Having been presented with his 100th cap, Root won the toss to bat first. Sibley and Rory Burns put together a first half-century stand from opening batsman since March 2017, 13 Tests ago.
Channel Four even opened their production with Mambo No.5. But Burns went on 33 with a reverse sweep gloved behind, Dan Lawrence trapped for a five-ball duck. And with Root almost run out on three, things were only getting bleaker.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say the break came at the right time for the tourists. The jolt of 63 for no loss to 63 for two – 67 for two at lunch – was considerable enough to have India all smiles. The skip in their steps was noticeable at the start of the middle session.
Returning quicks Ishant Sharma and Bumrah, playing the first of his 18 Tests at home – Lawrence being his first Test scalp in India – made use of a reverse swinging ball at one end. Meanwhile, Ravichandran Ashwin, also back in the XI after injury meant he could not take up Tim Paine’s invitation to the Gabba, started to get into his work, buoyed by Burns’s gift earlier.
They stitched together a near faultless 13-over spell limiting Root and Sibley to just 19 runs. For those waking up at a normal hour in the United Kingdom with a less than passing interest in the game, it might have been a reason to go back to bed. The skill on show, however, suggested something was going to come.
That nothing did was a much a tick alongside the Root-Sibley connection as the century stand brought up off 234 deliveries and 150 just 72 later. Once out of that rough patch, they embraced their square games: Root with the sweeps, Sibley with the nudge and occasional jive down the pitch to drive down the ground on the half-volley.
The shorter balls would come as Sundar and Nadeem, two Tests between them, were preyed upon. Those 123 runs in the final session came risk-free, even with a splattering of aggression as Root dropped to one knee and slog-swept Ashwin and the new ball for six over deep midwicket.
He immediately cramped up and needed the help of Virat Kohli to stretch out his right leg. The India captain will aim to be far more of a nuisance to his opposite number when he gets to bat. More immediately, that kind of support will be required ten-fold from a middle-order of Ben Stokes – who will join Root first – Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler to build on their skipper’s fine work and establish an unbeatable first innings total.