@Phil_Wisden 3 minute read
Phil Walker examines the pros and cons of Joe Root’s potential successors as England Test captain.
When the cream of the establishment turns on you, the game is up. It’s hard to see where Joe Root goes from here. Grenada felt like the endpoint. As tragicomic a capitulation as any served up by England this century.
He has done the job for more Tests (64) than any other Englishman, and won more games (27) and lost more (26) than any other. The recent numbers are damning. One win in 17, five series without a win on the bounce. Damning, too, is the almost inexplicable dearth of talent at his disposal. He is an unlucky captain. But while he’s rarely been able to field his strongest team, he’s still made problems for himself, lurching from the timid to the radical with a load of baffling selections. He may claim behind the scenes that when nothing works, a man does funky things. He may also like to point out that a captain without any functioning batters is going nowhere.
But for all the caveats, and the genuine sympathy for a great cricketer in trying times, an unshiftable drift and ennui has taken hold. It’s emphatically no fun anymore. Root looked shattered after Grenada. It’s a classic Catch-22 moment: if, after everything, he still genuinely wants the job, then there must be something wrong with him. And Root is no one’s fool. It’s time to end the agony.
And so to the next bit. Cue cacophonies of rampant guesswork packaged up as insider knowledge and searing insight.
Ben Stokes is the populist pick, the easiest to rationalise and make a case for. He is the most likely to be asked to do it. But there is one huge, towering problem: he doesn’t need or want it. He is already immortal. And a millionaire many times over. He has won a World Cup. He will end up with 130 Tests, 20 Test hundreds and 250 wickets.
In the pros column: authority, respect, strength of personality, no shits given, assured of his place.
Cons: you need to live it and breathe it, every minute of every day. Can he make that pact with himself? Should he be persuaded to take on a job he evidently doesn’t covet or need? These are big question marks. As the team’s most complete player, should he be given more responsibility on top of everything else? Will he bowl himself into the ground, in protest at the paucity of others, as we’ve seen before, at Headingley in 2019 in particular? More delicately, should this particular character, who has gone on a singular journey throughout his career, who was so close to destroying everything and who finally hit the burnout wall last summer, should this unique and compelling cricketer be twisted to taking the job? Should the England Test captain be accompanied everywhere he goes by a film crew as the subject of his own no-holds-barred soon-to-be released Amazon documentary? Or indeed, if we’re really just living in the deathly sinkhole of showbiz content, might this be the thing that clinches it?
Stuart Broad is persuasive, I suppose. Pros: He has the self-regard and experience to do it. He will get a kick out of it. He won’t be cowed or self-conscious by it. He’s articulate and cricket-obsessed. He’ll wear a headband. He will seduce the media, and garner respect from assorted ex-skippers and golfing buddies. It will make for good copy when he drops Root for the second Test of the summer.
Cons: He will be a month shy of his 36th birthday when the first Test is announced. There are seven Tests this summer, and three to follow in Pakistan. That’s 10 Tests in seven months. How many, under normal circumstances, should Broad play of those? It’s debatable he gets into a first-choice attack for Pakistan, or even a squad. We’ve all seen in recent days how pace through the air is the only currency on those pitches. Then there’s this cluster of games in the summer. But he plays regardless? Or every other game, so spends a large portion of his time as, what a non-playing strategist? If so, who’s his deputy? Jimmy? Nothing would surprise me any more. And how will the power axis of Stokes and Root respond to Broad’s captaincy? They remain the most important figures in this team.
It’s faintly unhinged and almost certainly career-harming to talk of Jos Buttler but I’m going to anyway. Ben Foakes has shown that no keeper is foolproof or infallible. People drop catches. And batters go in and out of form. By way of comparison, across their careers Jonny Bairstow averages 34, Buttler 32, with Buttler having kept in 37 of his 57 Tests. Since the start of 2020, Bairstow averages 33.5, Buttler 32.5. In numbers, there is little to split them.
Pros: Clever, liked, genuinely inquisitive about strategy, renowned as a good thinker on the game. He doesn’t speak in cliches. Heir-apparent to Eoin Morgan, which shows his standing. His Test record is not as bad as it’s made out. Averaging 32 as a Test wicketkeeper is not useless by any means. It’s just not as good as it should be. Six months ago he would have been squarely in the conversation.
Cons: He’s still not cracked it. He looked shot during the Ashes. Can he summon the will to try and crack the puzzle again? The clarity he has in white-ball batting is inverted in Tests; the captaincy could well confound an already precarious situation. He probably wouldn’t want to do it anyway. The punters wouldn’t like it.
From the rest, Rory Burns might come up, as perhaps the least implausible option from a county line-up that also features Tom Abell (tidy, good stock, very uncapped); Sam Billings (clubbable, genial, ambitious); James Vince (be still my beating etc); and, well, other people.
Pros: Burns has led a Championship-winning team, he’s been at the sharp end of county cricket for more than a decade, he has an Ashes hundred and a ton against New Zealand; less than a year ago he looked like a passably good Test match opener. Early signs this summer suggest a slightly refined and simplified technique, with fewer moving parts. He’s invariably prolific in county cricket and started last summer on fire.
Cons: He’s not in the team. He averages 30 from 32 Tests. He’d have more than enough to deal with just making a few runs. A relatively reserved individual, his focus, understandably, would surely be on repairing his own career before anything else. Would he have the authority to wrest this team out of its slump and shift its culture?
Truth is, no one knows, because nothing stacks up. It’s amazing that we’ve got to this point, but here we are.