When he wasn’t captain, the runs flowed. With the extra burden on his shoulders, it wasn’t as easy. But now, after a stunning start to 2021, Joe Root has found the perfect balance, writes Taha Hashim.
Last year, Joe Root’s England won three series on the bounce. He missed one match to be present for the birth of his second child, and England lost it. With him in charge, they went undefeated. The Captain was doing just fine.
The Batsman was by no means in a slump either. Across eight matches in 2020, he averaged 42.18 – you’d take that from a skipper getting the best out of the rest of his side. A growing acceptance was taking hold that this was to be Root’s way going forward: he’d contribute the odd match-defining score with the (c) next to his name, but he wasn’t going to stamp all over a series. That seemed to be in the remit of Ben Stokes, his trusted lieutenant and showman. Root would comfortably still go on to have an astounding career, but questions of what could have been would still follow. By the end of the year, his batting average stood at 42.48 after 44 matches as captain; before he’d taken on the job, it had been 52.80 from 53 matches.
Maybe one day he’d relinquish the reins and return to the consistency of his early England career, when he’d briefly been the best Test batsman in the world. But he’d have to sacrifice one for the other. He couldn’t have it both ways.
Or so we thought. Three matches into 2021, Root has 684 runs courtesy of a 186 sandwiched between two double-hundreds. He’s swept his average back above 50 and been named Player of the Match on three consecutive occasions. He’s led England to six successive wins away from home and maintained his 100 per cent record as a captain in Asia. He’s beaten India in their own backyard; not since February 2017 had Kohli’s men been second-best on their own patch. A hundred Tests in, never has Root looked more in control of himself and his team.
With the bat, there’s a new kind of ruthlessness. For so long he’d ease to a half-century but fall short before reaching three figures. Now he takes off his helmet and waves his bat, but refuses to let up. Before Sri Lanka, he’d never hit centuries in two consecutive Tests. Now he’s racked up three on the bounce. Plying his trade in subcontinental conditions, where he’s always played the turning ball with immaculate control, has no doubt helped, as has some work on the exercise bike.
What’s surely benefitted Root’s run-making too is the gameplan laid down by Chris Silverwood since his rise to head coach in 2019. Sure, England were a hell of a watch under Trevor Bayliss, but their aggression always left them one false stroke away from a batting collapse. Under Silverwood an old-school ideal has taken hold: you don’t relent in your first innings. Root told reporters after a strong opening day at Chennai that he wanted his side to target 600 to 700, and though England fell just short, it was telling that there was no declaration and little rashness from their lower-order as they stretched the innings out to day three for a total of 190.1 overs. There’s still that natural busyness in Root’s batting – his strike-rate this year is an impressive 64.65 – but his side’s methods seem perfectly aligned with his own. His average in England’s first innings across 2021 is an astonishing 210.66.
As a captain, Root now looks the smartest man in the room. How much of a confidence-boost must it have been for Jack Leach to take the new ball ahead of James Anderson in India’s second innings after he’d been shellacked by Rishabh Pant in their first? The left-arm spinner’s resolve brought figures of 4-76, with Root giving him the overs to take England to victory on the final day.
The previous evening, the television cameras had stalked Root’s movements in the dressing room, awaiting a declaration everyone else expected to come imminently. Instead, England batted till the tenth wicket fell, sucking up overs with a great deal of circumspection, even after Root had slapped his way to a 32-ball 40. In the end, the decision was justified, with England having more than enough time to go 1-0 up. Root then seized the moment to provide the most alpha of responses at the post-match presser when asked about his non-declaration: “As the batter who spent the most time out there on the wicket, I felt like I had the best gauge. I knew that with the outfield as quick as it was, with the ground being as small it was, I didn’t want to give India any chance of winning the game.”
Even in the aftermath of a special victory, Root placed emphasis on this being the start of the road: “They’ll come back hard at us.” He’s not wrong: after Australia went 1-0 up four years ago at Pune, India clawed their way back to a series win. Chennai will be remembered fondly, but far more so if England can pull off what would be an astonishing series win. Suddenly, it seems possible, and it’s largely down to Root.
In delivering victory over India in the first Test, he equalled Michael Vaughan’s record for the most Test wins by an England captain. Vaughan’s last victory was delivered two months before a tearful resignation, the runs and wins hard to find three years on from an Ashes win that sealed his legacy. Somehow, Root seems to be going the other way, gathering energy rather than expending it, as if he’s spent the last three years building up for a momentous 2021.
Root was always going to be remembered fondly for his batsmanship – that was a given from early on in the piece – but captaincy always seemed a less natural fit for a boy who looked best-placed to just crack out run after run with a grin on his face. But now he’s a smile-to-go-with-the-steel statesman, emboldened by his own excellence with the bat and knowing how his side can and should play. Suddenly, even captaincy looks an easy gig. Maybe, just maybe, Joe Root can have it both ways.