Abhijato returns with a look at Joe Root’s resurgence in Sri Lanka. Is he back to his best? And can he lead England to victory against India?
Joe Root has certainly never been bad. But before this month he hadn’t exactly been brilliant for a long time either. While Jonny Bairstow has been polarising supporters, and Ben Stokes has been pulling off miracles, Joe Root has spent recent years by being, well, Joe Root – a batsman generally considered world class but falling short of the so called ‘big three’.
Root lured in fans with his charming strokeplay in his early years, convincing many along the way that he was going to become England’s greatest recent Test batsman. He is decent at white-ball cricket too – he has a T20 World Cup masterpiece on his CV plus 50 over runs aplenty. But then, along with the burden of an entire sporting world’s expectations, he was passed the baton of his country’s Test captaincy.
His struggles since then have been well-documented. His falling head which complements his quintessential flick shot has been dissected so many times that one may be forgiven for thinking that he gets out in similar ways too often. A reading of his numbers will tell a casual onlooker the truth – his average has hovered below 50 for a while now, and that’s not quite good enough for a player of his undoubted calibre.
Root’s non-conversion of fifties was another reason to revoke his license to the Fab Four. Although this exclusive group is a somewhat arbitrary invention – it’s not, as some apparently believe, an official club where the world’s best willow-wielders hang out after stumps – it’s interesting that there’s never been any doubt as to whether the other members of the gang truly belong. The only question mark has been above Joe.
The other three – Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson – have consistently done justice to their talent. The Kiwi skipper comes closest to Root in terms of temperament and talent but whereas Williamson soared to the top of the batting charts, and his side – fuelled by the world’s most limited resources – rose to the top of the Test world rankings, Joe Root slipped into a rut where he couldn’t even get going against either the West Indies or Pakistan last summer.
While Williamson does not get enough attention from the media, one could argue that Root has had too much. Yes, he plays in the toughest batting conditions in the world. And yes, No.4 is relatively a cosy place to bat from. But one would expect more from an experienced player often touted as one of the world’s best. The match-winning innings have generally eluded him since he became captain. And that’s the entire problem, isn’t it?
When Root embarked upon England’s winter tours in 2020/21, he was under as intense scrutiny as he’s ever been, especially after losing his place in England’s T20 plans. But then came Galle. And then another superb hundred in the second Test against Sri Lanka. Is Joe Root finally back to his freewheeling best? The flicks, the sweeps, even the occasional drives – everything was on the table again as he motored through these innings and set up two important England victories.
That’s the thing about players like Root. Cliches like ‘form is temporary but class is permanent’ ring true. Brilliance is of many kinds, but when glimpses of it are shown by men as talented as the English skipper, it remains unparalleled. Almost every other batsman in the series had succumbed to the mysteries of the pitches or the perils of their minds. But there was Joe, as busy at the crease as he had ever been, keeping the runs flowing with no regard for the gravity of the situation or who was struggling at the other end.
For the longest time, it seemed that Joe Root’s prolific batting would drift into the abyss. A second big century on the trot finally suggests otherwise. Now the critics have been silenced, hopefully Root can sleep without the worries of the world on his shoulders. He can also take more regular breaks now that he’s not involved in international T20 cricket.
However, it must also be remembered that the current Sri Lankan side is not the greatest they have ever fielded. And it shows. Root will also have to lift his captaincy against a confident India side in the coming weeks. Unorthodox field placement, a below-par spin contingency, and rapid bowling changes might not work against the Indian side coming off their arguably their greatest series victory.
This upcoming phase of English Test cricket must be entered with caution. The India tour threatens to be a long one, where things could take a turn for the worse more rapidly than an Ashwin carrom ball sent down a fourth-day pitch in the subcontinent. Critics will also have their sleeves rolled up in anticipation once again. England’s flaws, after all, have not been entirely disguised by their skipper’s best efforts.
However, if there is one thing that the England team – and skipper Root in particular – could learn from India in coming series, it’s that heart and grit might just prove to be enough when the odds are stacked against you.
Root has always had this grit himself. And if he continues his excellent form, and the good vibes he creates permeate throughout his team, then there could be exciting times ahead.
Winning in India is improbable. But as India showed down under, improbable is not impossible.
Another interesting piece. You talk of Root as a number 4, and I sincerely hope that that is where he plays in future : it is certainly where he should have been played more in the past. In fact only 43% of his innings have been at 4. For too long, he was undermined by his coach who wanted him to bat at 3. It is this which brings down his average. He averages 52 at 4; 69 at 5, but only 38 at 3. Incidentally, he must be one of quite a small group of England batsmen who have made double centuries batting at each of 3,4 and 5.
Noting that Smith and Kohli bat at 4 now also.
Root played the greatest inning I have ever seen in the flesh. The day Root took 8 against Australia at Trent Bridge Root followed up with a sublime century against Starc, Hazelwood & Johnson. The pitch or the conditions hadn’t changed, every other English batsman struggled (Bairstow scored a good, but extremely 70 odd) but Root was on a different planet to everyone else. He had so much time and a bat that seemed wider than anyone else’s (indeed he could have played it with the proverbial stick of rhubarb), it was the innings of a great player.
I genuinely believe that without the burdens of the England captaincy he would have kicked on and his average being closer to 60 than 50 (which is, obviously, still excellent)
I agree. He’s not a natural captain and has no one, bar Stokes, to consult on-field. I remember Vaughan saying that there was only so long anyone could cope with the off field pressure of modern Test captaincy. Root started very young – he’s been at it a long time. I hope he can find a way of withdrawing gracefully as captain whilst he still has years of Test cricket ahead of him. The alternative – that we lose several years of Root the batsman when it all becomes too much for him – would be a shame to say the least.
I think it’s no co-incidence that as he’s more settled in the captaincy role with ‘his side’ on a winning run reducing the criticism and pressure from that direction, so he can concentrate on building he big innings we all know he’s capable of.
Personally I don’t think he’s a great captain, but then neither are Holder, Sarfraz, Kohli or Paine, but what’s the alternative, there being so few players who are automatic selections. What matters is that he seems to be growing into the role as he gains more confidence. There’s nothing like being in charge of a winning side to make the demons go away and he seems to trust his players to perform.
It’s ironic that his young protégés like Sibley, Crawley and Lawrence seem temperamentally better suited to test cricket than his experienced pros like Bairstow, Stokes and Buttler. However this mix provides a nice balance to the batting which will be sorely tested in India.
The main issue for Root in India will be spin, where we look pretty ineffectual. Root himself looked useful alongside Bess and Leach, who were flattered by some very ordinary Sri Lankan batting in Galle that won’t happen in India. On a turning bouncing wicket they still went for around 4 an over. Moin for me is still a realistic option with his experience and greater variety. We need bowlers who can be consistent enough to apply pressure to batsmen. Bess and Leach never do this.
“Moin for me is still a realistic option with his experience and greater variety”.
Moeen’s experience of bowling in India was to average over 60 in his last series there. It seems most people, encouraged by the media, can remember how useless Rashid was but forget this about Moeen. His record outside England generally isn’t very good.
He’d also be well advised to keep out of government advertising campaigns.
He’s no worse a bowler than Leach or Bess and potentially he’s a much more effectual batsman. At least he’s the experience of Indian conditions, bowling against good batsmen and can’t be the worse for that. He gives the ball more of a tweak than Bess, who’s a white ball ‘roller’ and is prepared to toss it up. It’s difficult to see how either Leach or Bess are going to trouble the Indians and they certainly aren’t consistent enough to hold up an end and put pressure on in decent batting conditions. However it’s all pretty academic as Bess is clearly one of Mr Ed’s favourites and Moin seems to have been sidelined as emergency cover.
There arent any spinners from this country who’ve had any consistent success on the sub continent. Even Edmonds and Emburey, probably our best pairing, didn’t set the place alight.
I think it’s a little more nuanced than your wider point about him.
He’s played in eight countries outside England. In three of them (WI, SL and Bangladesh) he’s got an excellent record–and in a fourth he’s only played one match (although he didn’t get any wickets in it). He’s got a dire record in both India and Australia–but in India he was being played as a batting all-rounder and third spinner, and in Australia he was injured even though he played the entire series (which is what happens when the selectors pick a 20-year-old understudy who the captain doesn’t trust to play!) And he’s got a dire record full stop in SA and the UAE.
It’s also not as simple as saying he’s only good against weak teams, because he’s got a good record against India in England, who would probably take apart a really substandard spinner.
The main thing with him is that he needs to keep taking wickets, because his economy rate is high. However that’s also his best feature–no England spinner who’s played any number of tests has a strike rate which is anything more than fractionally better.