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Can ‘Reverse Root Maths’ make Joe one of the Fab Four again?

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Can we ‘Reverse Root Maths’ Joe into being one of the Fab Four again? Before we attempt to answer that question, it’s probably best to figure out what on earth any of it means.

If you’ve paid any attention to cricket over the past decade, you’ll know all about the Fab Four, and Joe Root’s contentious place within it. Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson round out the quartet. All are of a similar age, each might be the best batsman their country has produced in the last 50 years, and they arguably make up the best four batsmen in the world.

In recent years however, there have been suggestions that England’s Test captain might have fallen away. An average of 39.70 across 2018, 2019 and 2020 saw his overall career mark dip from 52.45 to 48.41. Some began to wonder if Root just wasn’t as good now. Kohli and Williamson each average closer to 55 than 50, and Smith north of 60. Could Root really be considered in their league, especially with the likes of Marnus Labuschagne and Babar Azam vying to overtake him?

So that’s the Fab Four part of the question defined, but what is ‘Root Maths’? The term was coined following the 2013 Ashes, after which many journalists, some of them Australian, wanted to question Root’s place as England’s incumbent opener ahead of the reverse encounter down under. The only issue was, he had hit 180 at Lord’s, which meant his series average was a perfectly acceptable 37.66.

The solution? Simply pretend that 180 had never happened! ‘It came with England in the lead and the pressure off, and look, if you remove it, his record drops to an average of 19.88 per dismissal,’ goes the argument. ‘Clearly, he’s not good enough.’

This is, of course, a questionable prism through which to evaluate a batsman. If you take out all of Don Bradman’s hundreds, his average drops all the way from 99.94 down to the sub-Gatting 34.10. But the method caught on, and now you really can prove anything with stats, as long as you know where to look, and what to discount.

A pair of match-winning hundreds in Sri Lanka mean Root’s stock is on the rise again, and while Root Maths are normally used to diminish a players achievements, instead, we’re going to build England’s captain up. What we’re going to prove this time is that, if you twiddle the Statsguru knobs right, Root really is one of the four best batsmen in the world. In fact, you can viably argue he’s second only to Smith.

He’s a banker everywhere

Home batting averages are often used as a way of doing a player down. ‘Sure, he averages 50, but could he do it on a cold, windy day in Durham?’ is the vibe. There’s a certain logic to it; runs at home should be easier to come by, with you and your teammates likely to be comfortable in the conditions you’ve grown up in.

Root’s average at home is the worst of the Fab Four by a distance. The other three each average more than 65 on familiar turf, while Root averages just a tick over 50. But what that means is that his away average stacks up pretty well. While he’s still a way off Smith, who averages 57 overseas, his average of 48.16 is above Williamson (45.57) and Kohli (44.23).

When you delve deeper into Root’s record across all conditions, the picture only improves further. He averages more than 50 in six different countries. Smith and Williamson average more than 50 in five each, and Kohli in three. If you need to pick a team for a game in a yet-to-be decided location, Root’s arguably your best bet.

Maybe expecting Root to average 55, as an English batsman, is asking too much. No England batsman since 1970 has averaged even 50, whereas seven Australians and four Indians have. Since the start of 2010, only South Africa, West Indies and Ireland have seen wickets sold more cheaply than in England. Batting in Englnad is hard, and if a player plays half their innings there, their average will take a hit.

However, we’re dangerously close to making a point with actual cricketing merit, when you were promised statistical tomfoolery. So let’s talk about conversion rates.

His conversion rate is good, actually

Oh for the days when all Joe Root stans had to fight off were a few barbs surrounding how often he got out between 50 and 100. There are worse problems to have, of course. The flipside of being bad at converting your halfs into fulls is that, if your average is good, you must be brilliant at converting your noughts into fifties.

At the end of the 2017/18 winter, before his proper downturn, Root was, among those with 5,000 Test runs, the third-worst at converting his fifties into hundreds, doing so just 26 per cent of the time. Michael Atherton and Stephen Fleming were the two behind him. But he was also the third-best at getting to fifty in the first place, doing so in 43.9 per cent of his innings. Only Don Bradman and Smith were ahead of him.

Both numbers have regressed closer to the mean since, and Williamson is one of the nine with a better 0-50 rate than Root now. But where England’s captain really stands out is in his rate of going truly big, and there have been few better at turning hundreds from babies into daddies.

Ten of Root’s 19 centuries have seen him go on to make 149 or more. Williamson has converted only eight of his 24 tons into 149-plusses, Smith only eight of 27, and Kohli 11 out of 27. Daddy hundreds are the ones that define games, so the thinking goes. Getting to a hundred is only doing half the job. And if you’re wondering why we’ve gone with 149 rather than the usual 150, you’re not grasping how petty Root Maths can get.

At the risk of making another Actual Cricketing Point, England’s analyst Nathan Leamon has explained how the top-order batsman who makes a fifty every innings is more valuable than the batsmen who alternates between scoring a duck and an even 100, with the former eating a higher proportion of deliveries early in the innings, usually harder to face.

Root is great at making fifties, the scores that make it easier for your teammates to make match-defining totals, and he’s the best of the Fab Four at making match-defining totals himself. And, and be grateful there’s not a whole point made about this, he’s also never made a hundred in a Test loss, which is something Smith, Kohli, and Williamson can’t boast. ‘No hundreds in a Test defeat, you’ll never sing that.’

He’s an ODI phenom

OK, so Fab Four status is mostly about Test cricket, but also, it isn’t. His lack of ODI pedigree is why Cheteshwar Pujara has never received serious consideration, and if we’re honest, it’s why Babar – only five Test tons but 12 in ODIs – is clamouring for inclusion.

Root maybe doesn’t get his due as an ODI cricketer because, with Jos Buttler knocking around, he’s probably not even England’s best right now. But he’s still one of only eight players ever to score 2,000 ODI runs at an average above 50. Williamson averages 47.48, and Smith a paltry 43.34.

It means that Root’s cross-format average – admittedly a largely meaningless metric – is up there with the very best of all time. Among those with 15,000 international runs, only Kohli, Jacques Kallis, and Viv Richards average more. Now that’s a Fab Four!


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