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Friday, October 7, 2022

Joe Root ensures panic and caution give way to sense of the unknown | England v New Zealand 2022

When the Jubilee Line tube is within a few stops of St John’s Wood on a Lord’s weekend, there tends to be some indistinguishable moment the personnel completely changes. Should you drift into your phone for a fraction too long you might then look back up and the general public throng will have been replaced by men in tailored suits, one arm holding on to the rails, staring each other square in the eyes, networking intent lurking underneath the gleam. This year New Zealand fans are there too, in 20‑year‑old Black Cap shirts as a sign they come in peace, along with the rest of the cricketing miscellany.

On this Sunday morning train, as the hushed chat conforms gradually to the decisive fourth‑day hum, there enters an unusual tension. As if to illustrate it explicitly, a trapped bee manically bounces off the lights, darting from rail to rail for any form of escape. It viciously veers one direction and the other, as the suits and the black caps and the ladies in socks and sandals dodge and weave and half-flick it away. They then keep distance and warily track its course.

It is this sense of borderline panic and caution that Lord’s tends to create exponentially the closer you get to the ground on days such as this. A space of constriction at the loosest of times, the threat of a Test that is England’s to lose is the other end of the journey. We all know how this tends to go. As the crowd get in, egg-shell walking to not create any unnecessary disturbance, Lord’s is situated against an ominously flat grey sky so dimensionless that the outlines of the stands appear to be green-screened in. You could cut the ground out and plonk it anywhere in recent history. Headingley 1998, for example, where England chased down a series win in a cold morning’s session of cricket.

The first two sessions of this blank canvas (the regime are no longer filing this as a “red-ball reset” and are more concerned with “planning as if you will live forever”), conspired to suggest that this time reality and intent might somehow effortlessly align.

England – presented with a New Zealand team enduring a small sense of “what next?” since their world Test crown – started as they ended, reacquainting themselves with themselves, but ferrying a simple optimism. Jimmy Anderson began his return with a ball that moved a fraction and beat the outside of Tom Latham’s bat, looking back and sharing a smile with his new captain and receiving warm whoops of praise from his former one.

Stuart Broad
Stuart Broad was buoyed on his return to the Test side and effected a team hat-trick on the third morning. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Half an hour later he had two wickets for no runs off four overs, a laughably succinct expression of all his skills. It only abated later for a throwback to the short bowling he used to send down 15 years ago, as if to make the point that he really has been doing stuff like this for that long.

Stuart Broad, similarly buoyed, had engineered a trademark moment of imposed delirium two days later, effecting a team hat-trick – one a strange run-out from an lbw shout that he didn’t even see while he appealed – to make his own point, too. England’s batting, as if to dutifully reintroduce itself with the duo, rolled out their old trick of creating holes inside the holes they were already in to undo most of the good work the first time around. It was almost quite sweet.

In amongst all that, it had been a thrilling three days of absurdist back and forth that led everyone here. Enough so to expect another hour of it on Sunday morning. And yet, to a reception of half‑awake, stirred huddling, Joe Root and Ben Foakes bat with ease. They tick off the runs required without any alarm, the target gently nearing with every over, and a sense not of learned panic and caution but rather of the unfamiliar creeps into the stands.

Regardless of whether it is the obvious conclusion or not, nobody is prepared for this. The head of security is suddenly emboldened to run around the concourses in a frenzied huff, veering one direction and the other, alerting his team that “with 15 runs to go, we are going to ring the perimeter”. One member of his staff receives this information, her face flickering the sheer unlikelihood of any of these families or old couples, at best one coffee in, running on to the ground in jubilation. She considers it, chooses not to respond, and nods with a civic duty.

Her back is turned from the action – like Broad’s had been – when Root cushions Tim Southee through the slips, a purposeful and definitive shot of which there will be reels one day, then drives him down the ground immediately after, matching Broad and Anderson with his own “best of” compiled into a reunited opening Test.

Most importantly, though – after a week when inflated ticket prices have dominated conversations – he hits the winning runs in time to ensure there has been so little play that everyone present will be entitled to a full refund. It was almost like there wasn’t enough panic for it to be considered decent value for money.

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