And on the third day, some hope. The game changed as that 156-run partnership between Joe Root and Dawid Malan stretched on through the afternoon, the miseries for England of the first two innings receded, replaced by the promise of a better contest ahead. Root’s 86 was a vital sign that his duck in the first innings was an aberration, while Malan’s 80was, in a way, even more important. England won’t win anything if Root doesn’t score runs, but the truth is, they don’t necessarily win much when he does, either. He peeled off a flawless 180 not out against India at Lord’s in August and they were still beaten by 151.
Just after tea at the Gabba, Root hit his 1,482nd run of 2021. It is a record for the most runs scored by an Englishman in a single year of Test cricket. On screen they showed the top five in the list. There was Michael Vaughan, of course, in 2002, Jonny Bairstow in 2016, and Root himself, in 2015 and 2016. It’s interesting, flicking through them, to see how well their teammates played around them at the time. In 2002, every member of England’s top six scored at least 500 runs; in 2015, so did Alastair Cook, Ben Stokes, Ian Bell and Moeen Ali; in 2016, Cook, Ali, and Stokes did it again, and so did Alex Hales.
This time around, no one has. In fact, while everyone’s been watching Root close in on one record, his teammates have been threatening another. This year the next-best batsman is Rory Burns, who has scored 492 runs. The last time England’s second-leading run scorer made so few was back in 1999, when England lost to New Zealand at home, and slipped to the bottom of the world rankings. In the long history of English cricket, it’s never happened that their leading batsman has scored more than 1,000 runs while the next best of his teammates has scored fewer than 500. The closest comparison is 1963, when Ken Barrington made 1,015, and Ted Dexter 583.
All of which is another way of saying that the man who may be England’s greatest-ever batsman is playing in what is likely England’s weakest-ever batting line-up. They have put on 32 fifty-run partnerships this year, Root has been involved in 20 of them. They’ve put on 10 hundred-run partnerships, and Root has been involved in eight of those. He has scored six centuries, his 24 teammates have managed one. The business of captaincy, selecting teams, switching bowlers, picking out fields, managing people and handling the press is enough of a burden without the back-breaking load of carrying such a deadweight batting unit.
The men around him owe him more. Which is why Malan’s innings mattered. It wasn’t perfect, he said himself “I did get away with it a bit”. There was a miscued pull that landed in front of Marcus Harris at square leg, an edge off Josh Hazlewood that flew over the slips, another off Pat Cummins that fell just short of Alex Carey, and an unsuccessful review for a catch behind which, he said later, he didn’t hit.
He was beaten inside and out, played-and-missed almost 20 deliveries. And in among it, he hit some glorious cricket shots, crisp drives, swishy pulls, stylish glances. As the afternoon wore on, it got easier for him, then, as the bowlers changed and he started to cramp, it became harder again. But he persisted.
That was what England needed. The irony is when England started planning for this series a year ago, Malan wasn’t part of their thinking. He’s only here because Zak Crawley’s form was so poor the selectors were compelled to look elsewhere.
And here he was, a guy who had put together scores of 56, 140, 54, and 62 against these very same bowlers, on these very same grounds, on tour four years previously. England, in the meantime, had apparently decided they were so flush with batting talent they could do without him. The decision to drop him didn’t make that much sense at the time. “It may be that his game is better suited to overseas conditions,” said Ed Smith, who was chair of selectors.
Malan, 34, comes across as a little insecure. He has spoken openly about how he was convinced that none of his teammates thought he was good enough to be playing Test cricket even after he scored that century in Perth in December 2017, and you can imagine how Smith’s words compounded that.
Now here he was, making the most of his second chance he had long since given up on getting. After stumps he spoke about a moment midway through the afternoon: “I actually said to Rooty when we were both on 40 or 50, or similar scores, and the Barmy Army were singing, I said to him, ‘I’ve really missed this, someone trying to blow my head off, and the adrenaline going playing against the best bowlers’.”
Anyone who can go through that and come out laughing and smiling about it has a dash of what England need right now.