With no live cricket to look forward to, I’ve spent some time this week looking back. I came across this article I wrote about Joe Root in October 2015, just after he became the fastest English player in the modern era to score 3,000 Test runs. It really made me think.
I’d forgotten just how prolific Joe was in the first three years of his career. He reached 3,000 runs in just 62 innings at an average of 57. By comparison it took Alastair Cook 73 innings to reach this landmark.
Joe was in elite company at this point. In fact, he was the fifth fastest batsman to reach the 3,000 run landmark worldwide. The only players to do it faster (since the 1980s) were Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Virender Sehwag, and Matt Hayden. This put Root in front of legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Adam Gilchrist, Javed Miandad, Kumar Sangakkara, and some guy called Steve Smith. I’ve never heard of him either.
I finished off the article by making one of my typically boneheaded predictions: that history beckoned for Root. He was batting on a historical level so why not? I predicted the only thing that could stop him was his bad back. I even joked that the physio was arguably the second most important person in the England set up.
Obviously the factor I didn’t account for was the captaincy. I’m not sure I even envisaged the possibility that Joe might become captain in the not too distant future. Alastair Cook was ensconced in the role at the time and he hadn’t even reached his 30th birthday. I assumed Sir Alastair would play for at least another five years – I couldn’t see him giving up the captaincy, and I certainly couldn’t see the ECB ever sacking their favourite son.
The problem was that Cook lost form, England were losing too many matches, and Alastair eventually decided that enough was enough after a 0-4 defeat in India. There was no obvious replacement waiting in the wings, so England did what they often do in such circumstances – they turned to their best batsman to fill the void (even though said batsman had very little captaincy experience).
Although there wasn’t a compelling reason to give Root the captaincy – other than the fact that his place in the side was secure – there weren’t really many (any?) viable alternatives. Therefore everyone from the ECB to the supporters simply put their faith in Joe and hoped for the best. What else could we do? The golden boy had taken everything in this stride up to this point so there were reasons for optimism. Sadly, however, it hasn’t worked out – at least not for Root the batsman.
Joe’s Test average has dropped by almost ten runs (that’s a huge margin) since those halcyon days when he reached 3,000 Test runs in 2015. His average as captain is just 43 – pretty good for a normal international batsman but not nearly good enough for a guy as talented as Root. Indeed, his career record has now slipped down to 48 and he’s only scored 9 hundreds in his last 107 innings. He scored eight tons in his first 62 innings as he raced to 3,000. It’s pretty clear, therefore, that Root’s form has declined alarmingly at a stage in his career when he should be maturing and reaching his peak.
So what’s gone wrong? It simply has to be the captaincy. Root’s recent inability to covert many fifties into hundreds also suggests that he struggles somewhat with the mental burden of leading the team. Sometimes he cuts a forlorn figure and one wonders how well he copes with the criticism that inevitably comes his way from time to time.
Although one might argue that moving Root to 3 (where he averages just 38) also badly affected his form – why do so many people believe the fallacy that the best player should bat 3 when neither Virat Kohli nor Steve Smith do? – one could argue this experiment also stems from the captaincy. Root was always reluctant to bat at first drop but as captain he felt obliged try and lead from the front even though (in my opinion) his game is best suited to the middle-order.
Joe hasn’t been helped by the fact that he’s leading a somewhat erratic and inconsistent side. England’s batsmen have been bowled out for low scores too many times on his watch, and we’ve often struggled to post big first innings totals. This has put even more pressure on the captain and highlighted his (relative) lack of form with bat even more.
However, one can’t help wondering whether Joe’s form will ever improve while he’s carrying this burden. Some batsmen are inspired by the captaincy and seem to score more runs with the extra responsibility. Both Graham Gooch and Mike Atherton, for example, averaged significantly more when skippering the side. Andrew Strauss’s form was unaffected either way. But unfortunately many others lose their batting mojo.
When Michael Vaughan became England captain he averaged a superb 51. Five years later, even after an extremely successful spell as captain in terms of results, his average had fallen to 41. It’s incredibly disappointing that a man who’d destroyed one of the best attacks of all time in the 2002 ashes only averaged 35 when leading the side.
Sadly Joe Root seems to belong to this second category. But unlike Vaughan, who had excellent players around him like Marcus Trescothick, Kevin Pietersen, and Ian Bell, Root doesn’t have the same level of support. He’s very much the main man. And England need to squeeze every single run out of their best player to compete with the best.
In these difficult times, when there’s only a small amount of sports one can still enjoy, the positive side is that Joe can finally have an extended rest. This may reinvigorate him. Consequently, when cricket returns we may see him return to top form with the bat.
However, one wonders how long any purple patch will last. International cricket is incredibly intense, the schedule is relentless, and my best guess is that familiar problems (like his poor conversation rate) will return. Therefore, one has to ask whether England would be better served by Joe returning to the ranks – especially as he’s not exactly know as a master tactician.
There’s just one problem. And it’s an extremely familiar one. Who on earth would replace Root at the helm? The well-spoken and squeaky clean Jos Buttler might have been an option once, but he’ struggling with the bat too and one wonders if he’ll ever make it as a bonafide Test batsman.
The other alternative, of course, would be reigning Wisden Cricketer Of The Year Ben Stokes. However, this would be a big risk considering his off-field history and recent altercation with a South African supporter. Stokes is a brilliant cricketer, and much admired within the team, but he isn’t exactly the ECB’s model England captain.
What makes this dilemma even trickier is that there isn’t even a prolific young batsman to turn to this time. The default option therefore isn’t available. So what do England do?
I’m not going to answer this question myself – I’d like to hear what you think in the comments below – but England must gauge whether it’s worth diminishing our best batsman – our only world class batsman – because we’re unwilling to gamble on an alternative.