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If Joe Root can get back to his best, England can dare to dream

joe root
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

After a 228 for Joe Root at Galle, Yas Rana wonders what an era-defining year for England could look like as their captain threatens to return to his best.

There’s a tendency in British sport to overhype its young stars. I’m probably going to do it later on in this piece. Reasonably encouraging performances early on in a career prompt lofty and at times unrealistic expectations. When those hopes aren’t quite fulfilled anything less is tinged with disappointment, regardless of what that sportsperson goes on to achieve.

Take Wayne Rooney’s retirement earlier this week. Comfortably the best English footballer of his generation and someone who finished his career as the record goal-scorer for both his country and his country’s biggest club. Or Rory McIlroy, who by the age of 25 had won as many majors as any other golfer from the United Kingdom – Nick Faldo aside – had done since the war, who still consistently ranks among the top ten players in the world. Veritable titans of their field but a pair whose careers have been stalked by a nagging sense of unfulfilment; extraordinary success in the early parts of their careers leading to an unfair feeling of disappointment later on. Subsequent good times are expected as a matter of course and that success is rarely as celebrated.

The same can be said of Joe Root. Since his early days in the England team, Root has almost always been his team’s most reliable run-scorer. From 2014 through to 2019, he ended each calendar year as England’s top run-scorer in Test cricket. For most of that time he made batting look as easy as any English batsman has this century and arguably enjoyed a sustained peak from 2014 to 2016 as good as any Englishman’s since the time of Hutton and May; you can count the number of batsmen who have maintained that level of success across a whole career on one hand.

But for all the good that’s done, because he hasn’t quite kept up with Messrs Smith, Kohli and Williamson, there’s that sense that he’s underachieved, that he ought to be doing what the other guys are doing, that it’s not enough for him to only be the fourth best batsman of his era even though there is still a reasonable chance that he’ll end his career averaging more than the likes of Lara, de Villiers and Ponting.

Sure, he’s endured a gradual dip in form but it’s a dip most cricketers would happily take as a career peak; since the start of 2019, he averages over 44 in Test cricket with two double hundreds and scored two tons in a World Cup winning campaign. It is worth appreciating just how much English cricket owes Root, for so long the stabilising force in a turbulent era of English Test cricket where England have rarely, if at all, threatened to be the best side in the world. For the best part of a decade, Root, without complaint, has done his best to paper over the cracks of an underperforming system.

Are there signs that he’s approaching those mid-2010s heights once more? Maybe. “I’ve changed a few things,” he said after day three. “I tried to get more rhythm into my batting, get triggers that I can do that gives me rhythm to things. It looks different to previously, but feels good…trying to clear my mind.

“I’ve spent lot of time with myself, I had so much time to look back, watch cricket around the world. Learning off my peers, it’s important to do that. The way Kane has been batting has been unbelievable. We’ve also got some great coaches, trying to tap into their minds, [Jacques] Kallis, [Paul] Collingwood, Graham Thorpe.”

It’s hard to imagine that Root has had much time in recent years for that sort of retrospection.

In his double hundred, there were signs that he had rediscovered some of that “rhythm” that he likes to talk about. Root’s batting is almost like a dance troupe: with so many fluidly moving parts, a moment of insynchronicity, however small, damages the collective output. At Galle, his foot movement looked natural again and all those moving parts were working well together. That classic Root trait of scoring runs at ease while others battled was back; in the first session today he rattled off 60 off 67 as his teammates mustered together 40 runs for the loss of five wickets.

Sri Lanka’s attack isn’t as penetrative as it was two years ago, but these are still encouraging signs that we’ve not witnessed for a while. His 226 at Hamilton in 2019 was more an exhibition of hardened bloody-mindedness than a return to type; it’s probably fair to call his Galle knock as his best since his 124 at Pallekele a little more than two years ago.

The prospect of Root returning to somewhere near his best is one that makes the immense challenges coming England’s way in 2021 markedly more surmountable. One of the quirks of this England side is that while Root and his great mate Ben Stokes are in the same year group and emerged together at similar times, they have rarely been the best versions of themselves at the same time.

England will go into the away tours of India and Australia as overwhelming underdogs. The absence of a world-class spinner makes the former particularly challenging, but a fully firing Root and Stokes in England’s engine room makes the latter seem much more achievable than it otherwise would be, particularly as Australia’s top order stutter against an understrength India. The emergence of Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and now Dan Lawrence gives further cause for tentative excitement, and all of a sudden, even against the might of that Australia attack, England have the makings of a side capable of racking up match-winning totals with the regularity required to win difficult Tests overseas. That blend of the youngsters who are not yet scarred by failure and the war-weary generals of Stokes and Root might just have the makings of a line-up that could at least threaten the Aussies in 10 months time.

But as has been the case for almost the entirety of his international career, England’s success will be heavily reliant on the form of Joe Root. His 2021 – a year that one way or another will go long way in defining his legacy – has started perfectly. The signs are good and if it stays that way, England can dare to dream and Root’s legacy might get that crowning moment that his service deserves.

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