How’s your luck, Joe Root? Fighting for pride and, ahem, World Test Championship points at the end of a gruelling Ashes series and a summer flushed with emotional highs and lows, Root must have felt things were going his way as he went to tea on 57, his side reasonably placed on 169 for 3. Then Pat Cummins strolls in, rips the old ball past his outside edge and rattles the top of off with a stonking delivery that might as well have been a laser-guided replica of his dismissal at Old Trafford.
Two innings, two dismissals, two unplayable deliveries. Well, maybe only unplayable if you are not coming forward quite as much as you should be – a minor quibble but they are fine margins at this level. Root had in fact looked much better with his footwork in compiling a fourth half-century of the series, but after benefiting from three drops earlier in the day, he finally saw his luck desert him as Australia tightened up after tea.
Plenty has been said about the role of luck in sport, and life in general. England’s head selector, Ed Smith, wrote a book about it: Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters. ESPN has the Luck Index, to try and fully quantify its effects. Some people prefer to imagine you make your own luck, falling back on a phrase often attributed to Gary Player: “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.”
In cricket, the very first action is a game of chance. One captain tosses the coin, the other calls “heads” or “tails”. Sometimes, it’s a game you’d rather not win, and there was a hint of that uncertainty on a crisp, clear morning at The Oval. This is a ground on which it is possible to construct scores with the imposing solidity of the famous gas holders that squat behind its north side, as well as one given to spinning later in the game, but there was just a hint of mottled grass and a forecast for cloud cover throughout the day.
As it turned out, Root lost the toss, but was still handed the chance to bat by his opposite number, Tim Paine, who wanted to extract any possible early advantage for his seamers. England’s openers then diced with danger during a testing new-ball spell from Cummins and Josh Hazlewood to post the highest first-wicket stand of the series (albeit a modest 27). Burns was given out lbw on 3, Hazlewood snaking the ball back to strike him on the back thigh – but Burns is a Surrey man, knows there’s a bit of bounce on this ground, and reviewed straight away.
If that was more judgment than luck, Root was soon to benefit from a few helping prods from Dame Fortune. Coming in during the ninth over, after Joe Denly had finally run out of lives in his game of pin the tail on the donkey, Root attempted to strike the carefree notes that characterise the best of his batting, latching on to some unexpected width from Peter Siddle to squire his fifth and eighth balls for fours through backward point.
Ground down through the series by the tight lines Australia have bowled to him, Root may well have resolved to play his shots and be damned. He dabbed and missed, inside-edged into his pads and generally threw some shapes before twice surviving presentable chances in the space of four balls delivered by – that man again – Cummins.
“If captaincy, as Richie Benaud said, is 90% luck and 10% skill, then the delivery to dismiss Root flipped those numbers around”
The first, an airy pull on 24 that flew straight to deep backward square, was butchered by Siddle, who received a tongue-in-cheek ovation from the crowd when he walked back out towards the OCS Stand a couple of deliveries later. Cummins then induced a thick outside edge in his following over, only for Paine to do Root another favour by palming it over David Warner at first slip.
A third gift was bestowed shortly after lunch, Steven Smith this time the man to prove that incessant practise can’t completely overrule the whims of the sporting gods. Root, on 30 at the time, drove Hazlewood authoritatively through cover a couple of overs later, bringing up his 7000th Test run and it looked like he might be on his way. He duly jinked past 50 for the 16th time in Ashes contests, only for Cummins to prolong his conversion issues. If captaincy, as Richie Benaud said, is 90% luck and 10% skill, then the delivery to dismiss Root flipped those numbers around.
So it goes. Fourteen years ago to the day, Kevin Pietersen memorably rode his luck to a hundred on this ground that not only sealed the return of the Ashes but brimmed with the showmanship worthy of a series almost without parallel. They came hoping to see something similarly uplifting from an England team rallying around their captain, even with the urn already gone, but the 2019 Ashes have turned into a contest that threatens to slink away quietly, from an English perspective, just as Root did from the crease during mid-afternoon. And luck hasn’t had much to do with that.