Six weeks ago, in a basement snug in friendly, rainy Manchester, Joe Root had talked about fine margins of angle and bounce, about Australian soil, Australian leather, Australian height; the cultural geometry of Australian fast bowling.
Root had already spent a month indoors visualising bowlers and plans. He talked about the way his own learned movements betray him, about reprogramming that voodoo-ish understanding of the planes of movement around off-stump; and about the fact Australia’s bowlers would be focusing on the same space, the same angles, the route to the edge of his bat.
There is always talk about “targeting” an Ashes captain. A simple dismissal isn’t enough. Captains must be assailed, hauled from their plinth like a tinpot town-square statue. It feels pointed this time. Root is arguably England’s greatest modern batsman, in arguably their least convincing top six. The whole series is 42 days long, a race that will be won from the front.
In Brisbane Root had won the toss and chosen to bat, an act of necessary aggression. England were already two down as Josh Hazlewood turned to bowl his 17th ball of the morning, 23 minutes into the day. Root was on strike, and on nought. Angles, bounce, the pocket of air just outside the line of his hands. Something would be decided in that space.
Hazlewood is a likable, baggy-looking figure, a man who seems always to be pretending to be a little meaner than he really is, but doing a fair old job of it. In the build up he had spoken about the simplicity, of what he does the idea of “just finding a length”. This is a little deceptive. It probably is about that when you’re already 6ft 5in tall with perfect wrist, shoulders, hips, nip, bounce, stamina, craft, speed, a kind of attritional one-man physical supremacy. Yeah. Just hit that length.
England’s captain had looked stiff, scrabbling for some elusive line between keeping his front pad clear, while also covering that wider space around off-stump. All five balls in the over had been tight to the stumps. This time Hazlewood went wider, releasing from a lower angle, drawing Root’s hands, his head, his batsman’s spider-sense into its arc. One quarter of a pitch’s length into ball 17, Hazlewood was already on his way to producing a perfect little Ashes miniature.
At the start of the day there had been something a little raw in the sight of Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns padded up for the anthems, squinting and blinking, trying to get the feel of the sky, the stands, the space. England have played only a couple of days’ cricket in Australia, even those an inter-squad game against fellow pale, culture-shocked English people. For all its brilliance, Hazlewood to Root was already destined to be overshadowed by the sheer theatre of Burns’s dismissal to the opening ball of the series.
There will now be further pointless dissection of the Burns technique. Here he planted his front foot across himself, like a man about to start pirouetting down a staircase tipping his hat and twirling a walking cane. This is just what he does. It works as well as it works when it works. But here he looked frazzled, losing his angles and missing a Mitchell Starc half-volley that swung a bit. Either way Burns is now an Ashes footnote. He will never escape that moment.
At the other end Hazlewood removed Dawid Malan, who edged trying to leave. That was about length. The ball to Root was about trajectory – and Root was already coming to meet the swing as it veered in, triggers flaring, adjustments being made. He will have felt in control even as the ball started to change direction, cutting away so, so late as it pitched – even as his hands came down blamelessly to meet the original line.
Root’s bat ended up slightly in front of him, pulled out of shape by the movement and wider line of previous deliveries. But there is no correct response to those angles. The logical outcome, the maths, the correct intersection of lines and bounce is a nick. In that moment Root was simply a canvas for the brilliance of the delivery; and beyond that for some shared store of deep Gabba-knowledge, the Aussie fast-bowling myth kitty.
It was the eighth time Hazlewood has got Root; he has done so more than any other bowler in Tests. It was also Root’s ninth Test duck, four of them in his past eight innings against Australia. And in that moment something did seem to shift.
There was time for some resistance from Ollie Pope, who looked eager, nimble, focused, fluent and somehow always on the verge of getting out. Such has been the talk of Hameed “playing low” you half expected to see him bent double, knuckles grazing the turf, but he was right in defence, left the ball better than anyone else, and looked like a Test player, which is something.
Later on Pat Cummins would clean up the lower order to complete a cinematic five-for on his captaincy bow. But it felt like the day and the innings came and went with Root; and with the deep, controlled brilliance of those early overs.