Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. And England’s contemptible loss by an innings and 65 runs at Mount Maunganui certainly felt very familiar indeed. But it wasn’t just the manner of the defeat that felt like deja vu. The captain’s performance was poor (with both bat and in the field) and many supporters are now debating whether we need to replace Joe Root for the sake of the team.
We’ve seen this all before, of course. Alastair Cook was often criticised for his captaincy acumen. He didn’t seem like a natural leader, he was clearly a limited tactician, and the best that could be said is that he ‘lead from the front‘ – that rather nebulous concept that merely means leading by example.
The problem with Cook, however, is that the team simply couldn’t get rid of him. There didn’t seem to be an obvious replacement waiting in the wings; therefore he hung on until he’d captained England more than anyone else in history – even though he was no good at it.
Unfortunately one can see a tediously similar situation unfolding with Root. He’s not a good captain either. Like Cook he’d never shown any aptitude for captaincy before being appointed, he doesn’t seem like a natural leader, and he only got the job because it seemed preordained.
The ECB chose Root because he was the pin-up boy of English cricket at the time, he was clearly the best batsman, and he was young enough to have a future but not so young that he lacked experience.
And who else was there anyway?
The parallels with Cook aren’t exact though. Sir Alastair’s batting was initially inspired by the captaincy. In fact, by the end of his career he averaged more as skipper (46.5) than he did in the ranks (44.6). It’s a very different story with Root though. Joe averages a lot less as captain (39.7) than he does a mere player (52.8).
What’s more, England probably need Root the batsman more now than England ever needed Cook in the early years of his captaincy. When Alastair became skipper he had several international class batsmen around him – Bell, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior – whereas the current England side has a talismanic all-rounder in Stokes and, erm, that’s about it really. The others batsman are still establishing themselves. Therefore, there’s a compelling reason to replace Joe Root right there.
England simply can’t afford to lose their only world class batsman to the travails of captaincy at the moment. Nothing would help the England team more than a liberated Root scoring big hundreds again. But the problem remains. Who could replace him? And so we go round and round in circles.
Personally I can only see 4 options. And to call any of these options viable is arguably a stretch.
1. Ben Stokes
As the vice captain, one might have identified England’s aforementioned talismanic all-rounder as the natural choice to replace Joe Root. But this one is complicated.
The workload on Stokes is already massive. He’s a key batsman and also an important member of the attack. What’s more, it rarely ends well when England make their key all-rounder captain. Ian Botham’s form suffered badly and he never seemed suited to the role. And then there was Andrew Flintoff. Freddie bowled himself into the ground and eventually ended up all at sea … aboard a pedalo.
Appointing Stokes is therefore a risk. England need him as much as Root’s batting; therefore we might end up restoring Joe’s form but undermining Ben’s. What’s more, with Stokes’s history of off-the-field misdemeanours, some would object to this promotion on moral grounds.
2. Stuart Broad
I’ve advocated giving old Stu-Pot the job on a short-term basis in the past. He’s experienced and has a very good cricket brain – although perhaps not the best judgement when it comes to DRS.
But how long will Broad continue to be an automatic pick? When England get to South Africa, and Jimmy Anderson is fully fit, there’s a chance that England’s second highest wicket-taker could find himself on the outside looking in. An attack of Anderson, Archer, Broad, Stokes, plus Leach looks good on paper but England might want more runs from their tail.
When he’s in rhythm, Broad should be an automatic pick for England. But he was down on pace at Mount Maunganui and looked pretty innocuous. Hmmmm. If he’s not guaranteed a spot then he can’t replace Joe Root. End of.
3. Rory Burns
I’m suggesting this one rather sheepishly after his ill-advised sweep at The Bay Oval. However, Rory Burns has an advantage which none of the other players on this shortlist do: he has good captaincy experience with Surrey. What’s more, the captaincy did not affect his ability to churn out big runs.
Whether Burns is established enough in the side to become captain is debatable. He might have scored five fifties and one hundred in his first 13 tests (a decent return by most standards) but he still only averages 30. What’s more, he doesn’t strike me as the most natural player of spin, which could be a problem when England tour the subcontinent.
As a left-field alternative to replace Joe Root I think Burns has some appeal. However, would it be fair to burden him with the captaincy when he’s still trying to establish himself as a batsman? It could be a risky move.
4. Jos Buttler
Can I see Jos as captain / batsman / wicket-keeper? No. It’s too much for anyone (just ask Alec Stewart). However, I could see a situation where Buttler relinquishes the gloves, goes back to batting at 6, and captains the team from there – thus facilitating a return for Foakes or Bairstow at 7.
I can think of two compelling factors that work in Buttler’s favour. Firstly he’s just the kind of handsome, well-spoken, and squeaky clean cricketer that the ECB wants its cricket captains (and their families) to be. Ahem.
Secondly, Buttler’s Test batting average of 34 (with the potential to rise higher) is just about acceptable for a No.6. If Root can rediscover his best form, and Jos can continue to average in the 30s, there would clearly be a net gain for the team.
However – and like with all these candidates there’s a big ‘however’ – Jos isn’t exactly a first class cricket specialist. You can write what he doesn’t know about white ball batting on the back of a Rizla+ but can you see him as a red ball tactician? I’m not so sure.
The good thing, however, is that Buttler has been identified as someone with leadership qualities in the past. He’s been vice captain in both forms of the game, and many expect it will be Jos rather than Ben Stokes who ultimately succeeds Eoin Morgan as ODI skipper.
So what do you think? Do any of the 4 options to replace Joe Root tickle your fancy? Or would you prefer to go with the fifth option: retain the current skipper and just hope his fortunes improve? I’d be interested to hear your views.
The most likely outcome, in my humble opinion, is that England will stick with Root for the time being. One of the reasons why Chris Silverwood got the coach’s job was his chemistry with the existing captain. To jettison this plan after one bad test (or even a couple) would smack of panic.
Beware the curveball, however. If Root keeps struggling for runs then I can see him giving the job away. He doesn’t seem to have the same stubborn streak as Alastair Cook. And that’s probably a good thing.
I think Joe will see how South Africa goes and make a decision then. Unless the decision is made for him.
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