Don Bradman had Bill Woodfull and Bill Ponsford to pave the way, Wally Hammond had Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, Viv Richards had Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge. In 2021, Joe Root kept coming in at 20 for two, and yet he scored 1,708 Test runs, only 80 short of Mohammad Yousuf’s record for a calendar year. Root, in the fifth year of his captaincy, when previous England captains have either wilted or resigned, touched the heights of English batsmanship; he even raised them to a new level in Asia.
The list of great Test batsmen in weak batting sides, which Root joined, is short and select. Others include West Indies’ George Headley before the Second World War, Martin Crowe of New Zealand, Allan Border in the Australian team of the mid-1980s, Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower. These Atlases are rare. Off his own bat, Root in 2021 scored more than three times as many as the next batsman in England’s Test side – Rory Burns, with 530. And he averaged 61, when nobody else reached 30, except Dawid Malan, from just five Tests. Amid all the difficulties of leading a struggling team in and out of biobubbles (England lost nine out of 15), Root was perfectly balanced at the crease.
Once the ECB had decided to press ahead through Covid with a never- ceasing schedule, Root was able to find his rhythm and, by playing 29 Test innings, to stay there. He even had time for a bad streak, going 11 innings without a fifty: this was partly due to the pitches which India produced after England had won the opening Test, and which turned so much that Root’s own off-spin took five for eight at Ahmedabad; and partly due to the mediocrity of his team which faced New Zealand, when England’s selectors ignored players who had participated in the IPL.
Even he was dragged down in that two-Test series. Either side, he flourished, in the first three Tests of the year, in Asia, then in the home series against India. Every version of the sweep shot was the basis of Root’s brilliance in Galle, and to a lesser extent in Chennai, where India’s taller and bouncier spinners were more likely to take a top edge. He had been adept against spin from the moment he scored ten runs off his first ten balls in Tests, on debut at Nagpur in December 2012, but now he attacked it in a way no England batsman had ever done on the subcontinent. He scored at 71 runs per 100 balls in his 228 in Galle, when his team-mates mustered 180 between them. And such was his reach – the elasticity of his arms – that he had a sweep or reverse sweep or slog-sweep for any length Sri Lanka bowled, opening up an area of more than 180 degrees from deep midwicket round to what he could turn into deep square leg on the other side. Sri Lanka were powerless.
When Root followed with 186 in the Second Test at Galle, then another double-hundred at Chennai, his sweep promised to become England’s signature shot of the decade, the successor to Kevin Pietersen’s flamingo drive of the 2010s, and Michael Vaughan’s pull that set the tone for the 2000s. After the lowlights, Root scored three centuries in consecutive Tests at home against India’s splendid attack. And these masterpieces, notably his unbeaten 180 at Trent Bridge, propelled him to the top of another list. Hitherto he had been the least of the quartet competing for the unofficial title of the world’s best batsman.
But in 2021, Virat Kohli’s fire burned less intensely; Kane Williamson’s right elbow did not allow him to grip a bat at times; and Steve Smith had too much on his plate, in the wake of Sandpapergate, to focus entirely on his unique technique. Root purred past them. Before this string of masterpieces, his best Test innings had been his 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2016, when he restrained himself to three main strokes, hour after hour, without his impishness tempting him to score behind point with the open face of an almost vertical bat.
For most of 2021, he found batting so easy that he dabbed and steered with impunity, until Australia, where he was dismissed three times in 11 balls by Scott Boland banging out a length on fourth or fifth stump. Desperate to inject quick runs into England’s innings, Root succumbed to his Achilles heel. He did not leave the ball and make the bowler come to him, or square cut with a horizontal bat: he tried something speculative in between. But as he did not turn 31 until the end of 2021, Root the batsman, if not the captain, had time on his side. Combining the best of both worlds – the defensive technique of the ancients with the novel strokes of the moderns – he could yet become England’s finest.