Nine years ago, in Nagpur, Joe Root scored 73 on his Test debut against India as a fresh-faced 21 year-old. Today, in Galle, Dan Lawrence made exactly the same score in his maiden knock for England. Although they were two very different types of innings, Root’s necessarily gritty and defensive, Lawrence’s bright and expressive, they were similar statements to begin a career with. After all, not every player looks as at home in Test cricket as Root did in Nagpur all those years ago and Lawrence did today.
There was pressure on both coming into this game. One was trying to reaffirm his credentials, the other was trying to lay them on the table for the very first time. England’s captain has endured a relatively disappointing run of form without a century in more than a year. Ahead of a huge 12 months, for him and his team, he wanted, perhaps even needed, to start 2021 off well. Lawrence, the young Essex thruster, is on debut, with all the attendant pressure that comes with that.
By the close of the second day in Galle, during which Root and Lawrence shared a 173 run partnership to move England into a position of dominance, they had both emphatically responded to the questions asked of them. Root had a classy 18th Test hundred, Lawrence an impressive first half-century. It was the beginning that both players wanted, to a vital year for Root and to a career for Lawrence. They both now have a platform to kick on from.
There is a stereotype of Essex boys. Never backward in coming forward, often loud, often brash, and, these days, often fake tanned and tattooed up to their eyeballs. There is a kernel of truth to this, as you would find if you walked down Brentwood High Street on a Saturday evening. Lawrence doesn’t have the brashness, fake tan or tattoos but he does have a natural confidence, both in his ability and his game. It has been remarked ever since he first made Essex’s first team as a 17 year-old. It was there for all to see during his maiden innings in Test match cricket too.
True, Sri Lanka bowled poorly at him early on, letting him get off the mark first ball with a delivery that was too short and gifting him a boundary from a full-toss, the very next ball. But Lawrence looked busy from the get-go. There appeared no thoughts of just blocking a few and taking it from there. He was not timid or uncertain in his movements. If there were nerves, he didn’t let them show. Lawrence did not bow down in reverence to Test cricket. Instead, he cosied up for a chat as if he had known the game for years.
His eighth delivery was a dot, played to cover. Most players would have been fine with that. But Lawrence admonished himself, motioning that he should have opened his wrists and played the ball squarer for a single. He might have been on debut but that did not mean he would let himself off when he made an error. Later, when he was dropped at slip on 60, he smashed his pad with his bat. He looked thoroughly unimpressed at having given the Sri Lankans a chance.
He was always on the lookout for runs, cutting Wanindu Hasaranga for four off leg-stump, whacking Lasith Embuldeniya over mid-wicket for six and sweeping Dilruwan Perera for a boundary soon after. In the first over of the second new ball, Lawrence, on 68, ran down the wicket and attempted to deposit Embuldeniya into next week. It didn’t work – he swung wildly and was simultaneously dropped at slip and dropped his bat – but it summed up his ethos. Looking to score at every opportunity was a feature of the innings.
That is generally a theme of Root’s game too. In this sort of mood, he is an opposing captain’s nightmare because his score is constantly on the move. Dinesh Chandimal certainly couldn’t find a way to stop Root rotating the strike.
By playing back, which England’s captain does often to spin, even the fuller deliveries, it not only allows him to adjust to turn or bounce but also opens up scoring opportunities on both sides of the wicket. It forces the bowlers to be really precise with their lengths otherwise Root will score off them. When the Sri Lankans went fuller, attempting to draw Root forward, he swept them, paddled or hard, scoring more runs. For the home team’s bowlers, it must have been as frustrating and exasperating as filling out a tax return.
Root reached his first hundred since November 2019, just after lunch with one of his many sweeps. Over recent months, he has admitted to struggling with some aspects of his technique during his century-less run and last summer, he certainly did not look as balanced or as fluid in his trigger movements as he does at his best. He seems to have things back in sync now, albeit in vastly different conditions and against spin compared to the seamers he struggled with during the summer.
“One thing I was really pleased with today was my shot selection,” Root said. “I felt like I got a really good combination of defence and attack and managed to pick the right balls the majority of the time. When I was younger, I might have tried to play too many shots to the same ball. And being a little bit more ruthless, trusting my defence more at times, has certainly paid off this week.”
For now, the talk of conversion rates – Root has 49 half-centuries – and dropping out of the Fab Four of modern-day batting greats have been quietened down. “It’s something I have always been desperate to do, convert those fifties,” he said. “For the last year, two years, I have over-thought it massively, made too big a deal of it in my own mind. Probably, because of that, it has been to my detriment.”
Given a defining 12 months awaits Root and his team, this was about as good a start as he could have had. But Root knows that talk about his form will not go away completely unless he gets back to the heights of 2014 to 2017 when he averaged 57.56. “I did a lot of talking before the game and ahead of this year, and I thought it was really important to go out there and do it myself,” Root said. “It felt like a long time coming. It’s now that I have got to build on this.” He can begin tomorrow, when he will start day three 168 not out.
Lawrence, who was caught at short-leg from a delivery that bounced more than he anticipated, will want to kick on from here too. He is at the start of his Test match journey but this innings confirmed what many in the game have been saying for a while about his potential. Root’s potential shone similarly bright all those years ago in Nagpur too. And although they are at very different stages of their careers, today was important for both of them. For Lawrence, it proved he has the game for Test level. For Root, it was a reminder of the player he is.