As England suffer heavy defeat in the First Test in Mount Maunganui, Patrick Noone looks at some worrying trends in the recent Test dismissals of captain Joe Root.
We need to talk about Joe Root. It was another failure for England’s captain as the tourists lost the First Test in Mount Maunganui, folding to an innings defeat with little more than a whimper. The concern for Root is not so much that he missed out again, rather the manner of his dismissal was representative of his recent form in the Test arena.
In the first innings of this match, Root took 20 balls to get off the mark, then finally scored two runs before immediately nicking off. That can happen – this was a flat pitch but a slow one; runs hardly flowed at any point throughout the five days and bowlers are allowed to bowl well. Root is an experienced enough player to be able to negotiate his way through those tough passages, but on this occasion he was unable to do so.
In Root’s previous Test before this series – England’s victory at the Oval in September – he scored arguably the scratchiest 50 of his career. Sure, it was still a half century, but for a batsman who used to make runscoring appear so natural, so easy, so effortless, Root’s recent run of form is becoming part of a wider worrying trend. It’s possible to find isolated reasons to excuse each knock in Root’s current streak of 14 innings without a century, but at what point do England recognise their skipper’s form is a cause for genuine concern?
It’s no secret that Root’s raw numbers have been in decline since he took over the captaincy from Alastair Cook in 2017. His average is fully 13 runs lower in his 34 Tests as captain than in the 53 he played before assuming the role, a record that compares hugely unfavourably with the other members of the ‘Big Four’, an elite group to which Root’s membership must surely have expired.
Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have all shown that it’s possible to become captain and improve as a batsman at the same, but for whatever reason, Root’s form has gone in the other direction and his technique has never looked more uncertain than it does now.
The barometer for a player of Root’s talent should be that elite level, but too often in recent matches, Root has been guilty of finding a peculiar way to get out, rather than doing whatever is necessary to stay in. In this very match, it took a snorter from Sam Curran with one of the few balls that misbehaved off the pitch to dismiss Williamson, while both of Root’s dismissals could generously be described as soft.
Colin de Grandhomme is not a bowler known for bouncing people out. In fact, before dismissing Root today, the all-rounder only had one Test wicket to his name from a delivery pitching shorter than 8m from the batsman’s stumps. The ball de Grandhomme bowled to get Root couldn’t even be said to have had the element of surprise, given he attempted a bouncer the previous delivery, only for it to be called a wide by the umpire. Root was nonetheless hurried far more than a batsman of his quality should be by a 124kph bouncer and could only tamely divert it to Tom Latham in the gully.
Maybe Root’s current travails are not directly correlated to his being burdened by the captaincy; cricket is rarely as binary as that and there are likely other factors at play – his shifting between number three and number four and the high turnover of openers above him in the batting order, to name two. However, it is hard to not think back to Smith’s performance during the recent Ashes series and wonder if Root could become similarly liberated if unencumbered by the mental fatigue that comes with leading the side.
None of this is to say that Root cannot rediscover his form, or that he is finished at the top level. The instinctive reaction is to think that he is far too talented a player to not rediscover the form that established him among the game’s elite. But right now, England need something to change after sleepwalking to another defeat and their need for Root the batsman is greater than their need for Root the captain.
For all the talk of England’s new era of prioritising Test cricket and putting a renewed emphasis on ‘traditional’ batting, this loss had many of the hallmarks of previous overseas defeats under Root’s stewardship. An inability to capitalise on a solid position with the bat, a lack of a penetration with the Kookaburra ball in unhelpful conditions, topped off by a mini collapse with the bat for good measure.
England would have hoped a new coach, some new faces and a well-earned break for Root during the T20 series might have added up to a rejuvenated skipper, fresh to steer the team through its next stage of development. One defeat is far too early to be writing off a new regime and while now might not be the time for kneejerk reactions, the question England have to answer is whether relieving Root of the captaincy would be quite as kneejerk as it might seem.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.