Joe Root is an undisputed Test match great, but his ODI accolades and records make him a legend of the ODI format as well, writes Katya Witney.
Ten years since Joe Root’s Test match debut, he’s also coming up to another milestone next month, celebrating a decade in the ODI format of the game. 158 caps since he made his debut against India in Rajkot in which he did not bat but bowled nine wicketless overs, he has gone on to become one of the foremost 50-over players of the modern era with the stats, achievements and longevity to back it up.
Root has achieved the rarest of positions in international cricket, withheld for the elite few who have transcended multiple formats of the game. Among those who have achieved the landmark of more than 100 ODI caps, he is one of only five players who average more than 50, with those above him MS Dhoni, AB de Villiers, Michael Bevan and Virat Kohli.
The role Root fills in ODIs is unique to the era he has played in. Batting at No.3, he is the ‘anchor’, with those above him given license to slog in the powerplay, and those below him given equal freedom at the end of the innings. But, in the modern era, he is also expected to be able to score at near a run-a-ball and kick on towards the end of the innings if required. Whereas Michael Bevan could tick along at 74.16 in the middle-order, Root doesn’t have that luxury.
However, he manages to tick all of those boxes. His strike rate of 86.93 may pale in comparison to some of his team-mates, but it is higher than Kevin Pietersen’s in ODI cricket. Among all the madness which white-ball cricket can bring, the assuredness of Root’s presence at the crease, accompanied by fans’ whispers ‘as long as Root stays there, it’ll be okay’, has come to define his career in the format. There is no more familiar company over the last decade for England white-ball fans than briefly looking up at the TV screen to see Root has made fifty, off roughly as many balls, and they haven’t even noticed him do it.
Root’s career in the shorter format has coincided with Eoin Morgan and Andrew Strauss’s crusade after the 2015 World Cup. Of those players who will be remembered as pioneers of the format because their careers aligned with Morgan’s, Root’s is one that might’ve had a similar trajectory without the post-2015 revolution, albeit with less silverware. Root didn’t need Morgan to unlock his potential, or give him the freedom to play his own way; he was already doing it in his early career.
In the 2015 World Cup, Root averaged 40 batting mostly at four, was one of two men to score a century and, among those who played in all six of England’s games struck at the second highest rate. Following that World Cup in a series against New Zealand, the first indication of what the Morgan era would bring, Root struck two centuries now batting at No.3, both at a strike rate of over 100.
His ability to find the boundary, whether it be with a solid drive down the ground or a trademark late cut/dab down to third man or a cheeky reverse sweep has made him one of the most difficult batters in the world to bowl to. He might arrive at the crease without the threat of destruction that Jos Buttler brings. But his presence could be just as integral to winning the game. He presents a lack of opportunity for bowlers scoring runs at a high enough rate to trouble them, but without supplying the chances that come with the rest.
The quiet manner Root goes about his business is itself his biggest threat. You don’t know he’s got you until it’s too late. In 2018, in a three-match series against India after Root had been dropped from the T20I side in the preceeding series – the only time he has been dropped in any form of cricket since the 2013/14 Ashes series – he set about underlining his integrity to a side with their eyes fixed on the 2019 World Cup. Scoring two centuries and finishing off the series with a boundary from the last ball to win England the match, series and take himself to his 13th ODI hundred, his ‘bat-drop’ celebration after that innings is one of the most memorable moments of his ODI career. A hint of the swagger and showmanship which touches so many of the rest of the greats, but doesn’t fit into Root’s narrative.
The crowning jewel of his ODI career to date, however, as with the rest of that team, was the 2019 World Cup victory. With all the drama of the final match, often Root’s role in that tour slips into the background, acknowledged but secondary to Stokes and Archer’s heroics. He was England’s highest run-scorer in that tournament, scoring hundreds in their loss to Pakistan and their comfortable victory over the West Indies. His innings in the final, a truly woeful seven off thirty balls, is unfortunately not representative of the importance he had in the team’s journey to that point.
Since then, Root has played half of England’s 30 ODIs over the last two and a half years without a hundred. His average drops to 36.10 in that time and he’s endured three of his seven career ducks. As a less regular presence in the side, some of this can be explained by the lack of focus on ODI cricket which defined the years leading up to 2019, as well as the final years of his Test captaincy. With another World Cup on the horizon and Root’s schedule now freer than ever, his phenomenal year in Test cricket has shown every indication that he intends the final few years of his career should be his swansong. To translate that across to the ODI format once more would be a celebration of England’s finest multi-format genius.