Joseph Edward Root. Born 30 December 1990, Sheffield, Yorkshire. If he were to be forced to retire tomorrow, he can look back at his career with an immense amount of pride. 23 test centuries, 2 Ashes victories, a World Cup to his name and the record number of wins as England test captain. Pretty impressive.
However, if there were to be criticism levelled at Root’s career, it’d be his record down under. English and Australian players are defined by the Ashes. What began in 1882 has now developed into one of sports greatest rivalries. A raging fire poured into a 10.5cm tall terracotta urn, which dictates the minds of cricket fans, players, and commentators alike.
Root’s first taste of it came in 2013, arguably the peak of England’s great era lead by Andy Flower. Following the thriller at Trent Bridge (including some antics from Stuart Broad), it was down to the Home of Cricket for the second Test. Not only did Root announce himself to Ashes cricket in that week, but he announced himself to Test cricket.
Given a life on 8 with a mix up between then Australian skipper Michael Clarke and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, Root capitalised and brought up his 50 with a trademark back foot punch. A baby-faced Root continued to charge on, scoring 180 to set up an England victory.
England went on the win the series 3-0, with Root averaging an adequate 37.66. But in the year that saw back-to-back Ashes series, England and their all-conquering empire led by Flower crumbled haplessly. A 5-0 drubbing spelt the end of an era.
Following being dropped for the 5th Test in Sydney, Root regained his place in the side for the first Test vs Sri Lanka in 2014. That summer, fortunes changed for Root, scoring 518 runs at an average of 103.60 in the 3-1 victory at home to India.
For the next couple of years, England’s new golden boy didn’t look back. In 2015 Root once again delivered in a home Ashes series, with quickly made centuries at Cardiff and Nottingham. A move from opener to the middle order allowed Root to score more expansively, and he was named in the ICC Test team of the year in 2014, 2015 and 2016 as a result of his excellent form.
It was in 2017 where Root was given the England Test captaincy. It began so sweetly with 190 versus South Africa. He maintained his good form at home to the West Indies that summer, with another century notched up during the day/night Test at Edgbaston. However, that winter, things took a downward turn.
Australia. It’s called the holy grail of English cricket for a reason. So many have tried and failed to win out there. The joys of 2010/11 were flanked by two 5-0 slaughtering’s in 2006/07 and the aforementioned 2013/14 series. In 2017, England arrived in Brisbane with home series wins against South Africa and West Indies under their belts. With Ben Stokes not in the squad after the Bristol nightclub incident, England and Root were up against it facing a rampant Australian side baying for blood.
In the first 2 Tests, Root managed 2 half-centuries: scores of 51 and 67 in the first and second Tests respectively. Without a meaningful contribution in the 3rd Test match attention turned the MCG, where a drop in wicket meant a batting paradise. Alastair Cook duly cashed in scoring 244*. But once again Root passed 50 but failed to make a 3-figure score. It was the same disappointing story in Sydney: 83 in the first innings and 58 retired hurt in the second innings after suffering with severe dehydration.
Lots of starts, but no big scores. Classy 80’s don’t win many Test matches but determined 180’s do (see Lords 2013). Root’s conversion rate was therefore subject to scrutiny by many commentators. And his captaincy was under the microscope, too.
Leading a comparatively weak England squad against superior opposition was tough. Despite having Anderson, Broad and Woakes at his disposal under leaden skies, the decision to bowl first in Adelaide bemused some. A telling criticism came from Australian legend Ian Chappell, claiming that Root was far too defensive in his ways and more concerned about defending runs rather than actively looking to take wickets.
The 4-0 bruising left for a lot of soul searching. Despite a 4-1 home win versus India in the summer of 2018, which saw Ben Stokes return to the England side, Root’s own form was really struggling: just one century in the home summer of 2018 and none in the home summer of 2019. Root was no longer considered to be one of the top players in the world. The ‘big four’ in Test match cricket was losing a member with Smith, Kohli, and Williamson pulling away. However – post lockdown – Root has taken his game to a new level. So much so, in fact, that it’s now incomprehensible to ignore him when talking about the top batters in the world.
2021 was always going to be a huge year on paper for England, with 9 tests versus India and then the Ashes down under. However, he’s come through the first part of the itinerary fantastically well.
The year started off in Galle. Hot and humid with balls spitting out the track in typically Sri Lankan fashion. Whilst England’s batting unit struggled, Root was a class above. He effortlessly worked the ball all around the park, particularly on the leg side where he swept magnificently on his way to a match-winning 228 runs. The second test saw more of the same: 186 crafted a little slower but still setting up a 6-wicket victory. One series down; one series won.
Up next were India. Fresh from their heroics a couple of months earlier at the Gabba, we knew they would be tough opposition. Chennai was the venue for the first 2 test matches, and Root once again reaffirmed his spot at the top table of international batting. His 218 helped England to a 0-1 lead in the series. However, things didn’t go to plan thereafter with India’s spinners tangling England in a web on favourable tracks. A 3-1 defeat resulted.
New Zealand (on their way to becoming world test champions) were up next. England now enjoyed home advantage but it still proved a difficult series. An uninspiring draw in the first Test led to disaster in the second, with a day 3 debacle leaving New Zealand just 38 to chase, which they managed with ease. Root’s imperious form over the winter looked a distant memory and the confidence was ebbing away.
The subsequent 5 Tests against India were made harder by the absence of Stokes. However, Root’s response showed admirable maturity and man management skills, “I just want my mate to be ok” were his words. There was nothing on his loss to the team, and no pressure on Stokes to return quickly.
Rain offered England a get out of jail free card in the first Test before attention turned to Lord’s. This time Root had found his touch: a superb 180 at Lords…sound familiar? Come day 5 England were in the ascendency. India had a lead of 154 with 4 wickets remaining. Pant was dismissed early, and England were cruising towards victory. But then in came Jasprit Bumrah and the match turned for the worse. Why had Root’s team gone so defensive? Could he handle these high-pressure situations? The pressure was back on.
Headingley was the venue for the 3rd Test, home of Root’s county, Yorkshire. The Lord’s shambles was quickly forgotten as India were well beaten by an innings and 76 runs. Not only were England back, but Root was back as well: 121 in front of his home fans. Yet another match-defining conversion. Sadly, however, India won the 4th game of the series and then pulled out of the 5th Test at Old Trafford, leaving Root’s side frustrated.
Attentions now turn to the winter and the small matter of regaining that little urn. The pressure has also been ramped up by the racism scandal, whilst England’s preparations have been severely hampered by rain. It never rains, it pours for Ashes tourists down under.
How things will go on December 8th is anyone’s guess. However, one thing’s for certain. This is Root’s time to assert himself, not just an all-time great of English cricket, but also as modern great of the game worldwide. Secondly, it seems (weather permitting) that the Ashes will go ahead, regardless of whether Root performs or not.