He has an entire family of back-cuts, from the angled-bat dab down fine to the more vertical open-faced glides square and everything in between: these are all trademark Joe Root shots.
The Joe Root off-drives are a trademarked range, housing the bog-standard drive through extra cover, leaning lithely into the shot, the square-driving on one knee or going straighter, body and bat moving into the ball with the practiced ease of a dancer.
The clips he works through midwicket – also a Joe Root trademark. The pull shot: trademarked; the back-foot punch, on his toes, as elegant as a yoga pose; the little drop to the off for a quick single; these are all shots that are identifiably Joe Root’s but if so many shots are identifiably Joe Root’s, then can any one shot be truly his? And if not, where does that leave us?
With the best batter in the world at this moment.
One sense that is common with great batters in their very best periods, as with Root now, is that every great innings acquires this inevitability. Of course, they scored a hundred and of course, they did it the way they did it, the way they always do it. It’s them, that’s what they do. After a time, pitches, bowlers, situations, and even results can become irrelevant.
Or rather than an inevitability, is this what it must be like to see (rather than hear) an echo? Every subsequent great innings is the echo of an original great innings the batter has played, except unlike with sound, there’s no loss of vividness.
With Root, most innings drive home the universal observation about his batting, that the first time you look up at the scoreboard after he has come in, he is already on 20-something and nobody is quite sure how he got there (hint: those trademarked shots).
But the reality for most batters has always been that the first part of any innings is the most difficult time. They are lining up actions, making sense of the surface, getting their body aligned, making sure the feet are light, the arms loose and a central equilibrium holding it together. They are trying to tune themselves out from the outside noise but also tuning themselves to the task at hand.
There’s no standout metric that illustrates the point of Root’s starts – the best one is that his dismissal rate in the first 20 balls (among batters who’ve played at least 100 innings since Root’s debut) is the sixth lowest. Even the caveat that he has played a lot in England, where top-order batting is basically about negotiating the early dismissal, doesn’t save this from being underwhelming. But that only speaks to a broader point about Root, because by the time you’ve read the last two paragraphs, he’s already on 23.
With Root, most innings drive home the universal observation about his batting, that the first time you look up at the scoreboard after he has come in, he is already on 20-something
For all that England’s batting has been this summer – and aside from being astonishingly successful, it’s still not clear precisely what it is – it has been underpinned by the presence of Root. He is the one who was there when none of this was there, and he’ll be the one still there when all this isn’t. That he has bookended the wild last few weeks with fourth-innings hundreds in a big chase is perfect.
And the Edgbaston hundred was every bit as significant as Lord’s hundred. England had lost three wickets in two runs in a matter of minutes, Virat Kohli was all over them and India were threatening to recreate The Oval. Lose Lord’s and who knows whether this happens. Lose this and face the questions, or at least the smirking reminders that against the best attacks, this isn’t going to work.
Instead, Root gamed it out. Enough singles to not let the score stagnate (but not so many that anyone noticed he was already on 20-something), keep out what you can, put away what you can. Jasprit Bumrah got too straight, away to the midwicket fence; Mohammad Shami gave him a fraction on length, dabbed through backward point. Root survived a tight lbw shout, next ball he shuffled out – another trademark – and clipped Shami through midwicket.
This wasn’t what England had done previously; this was Root doing what he does. He referred to conversations in the dressing room about recognizing moments when the pressure had to be absorbed, before ruthlessly turning it around-a bit of nuance he not often talked about over these Tests.
Once that period broke open, the inevitability crept back in: of a Root ton and more improbably of another big England chase. On the final morning, Root got through the 90s with, in order, a glide off the face through a third man, a clip off his pads and a late, late dab so fine it bounced in front of and then over second slip – all for four. If Root were to sleepwalk his way through the 90s, this is the route he would take as he knows it so well.
Eventually, England chased down the total in a much more calculated and less bludgeoning way than at Trent Bridge and Headingley. They were more inevitable about it and at the center was Root.
All that said, it has been a fascinating summer in the career of Joe Root. He feels like a kid again and because he has never knowingly not looked like a kid, the youthfulness is assumed to be in his batting. The new regime yes, no captaincy also yes. Together it has brought liberation. His strike rate from him has always been healthy but this summer, he has been striking at 19 runs more per 100 balls.
Also, perhaps, self-discovery. At Trent Bridge, he played shots that are unusual for him in Tests and urged a rewriting of the coaching manual. After Edgbaston, he half-joked he was caught between the grounding of the old Yorkshire way of orthodox batting and the entreaties of his captain to be a rock star. But he has clearly been re-thinking, or rather re-assessing, more seriously the contours of Test batting.
“It’s scripted out how you need to play in Test cricket,” he said when asked about dealing with the stifling orthodoxy around the format. “Sometimes being unpredictable is very difficult to bowl at. Sometimes the gaps are bigger, and you know where the ball is going to be because of generally how sides bowl for long periods of time. There have been occasions this summer I might have played some unusual shots. But they’ve felt like pretty low-risk options at the moment.”
It’s not as if no one has ever come upon this truth before. Virender Sehwag, as just one, understood this from the moment he started playing. In Root’s case, it could even be argued he has returned to it, given his eleven burgeoning white-ball game by him. Remember that, unlike his great contemporaries of him, he rarely gets to exhibit his (still considerable) white-ball skills anymore.
He has played seven ODI innings since becoming a world champion three years ago; he hasn’t played a T20 outside the Blast in over three years. The absence has steadily dimmed the cachet and robbed him of a global, all-format sheen (while, by contrast, Steven Smith and Kane Williamson faced off in the last T20 World Cup final). If nothing else, this summer has been a righting of that.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo