It’s hardly a new debate – in fact, it’s one nearly as old as the game itself – but Joe Root will still want to nip it in the bud this week as he returns home to Headingley.
England begin the third Ashes Test against Australia in Leeds tomorrow needing to win at least two of the final three games to regain the urn. Despite the visitors’ 1-0 lead, the impact of Jofra Archer and withdrawal of the concussed Steve Smith has left England confident of producing a turnaround.
If victory in Yorkshire could come courtesy of some weighty runs from their captain that would be the perfect scenario, because not for the first time the doubters – if not yet the internal doubts – are beginning to nag.
The words “captaincy” and “burden” are familiar bedfellows. An internet search returns 262,000 results, with just about every modern day captain, and plenty of previous ones, the subject of one of cricket’s perennial questions. Root has the unwanted distinction of being one of the main focuses of the discussion.
The theory goes like this. Captaincy of a cricket team tends to be bestowed upon the team’s best player – and, most often, best batsman. But the added strain it brings – media duties, player management, tactics and so on – has the effect of taking away from the previous strengths of run-scoring.
Root, who succeeded Alastair Cook as England’s Test captain in February 2017, has endured such questions before, with the 4-0 defeat in the 2017-18 Ashes in Australia and nine-wicket loss against Pakistan in the first Test of the 2018 summer at Lord’s particular flashpoints.
With England behind in a home Ashes series and Root averaging 25.75 with the bat in 2019, Headingley represents a pivotal Test for both the team and its captain.
Out of form
There is no doubt that Root is currently struggling for form. He was dismissed first ball by Pat Cummins in the second innings at Lord’s to see the end of a remarkable run of zero golden ducks in 152 Test innings.
Such a statistical quirk doesn’t tell the whole story, but the fact he is being trapped lbw more frequently – 19 times since August 2016, as compared to seven instances in the preceding four years – shows a technical problem to the ball angling back into his pads.
His overall Test average, once proudly standing above the benchmark of 50 alongside Australia’s Smith, India’s Virat Kohli and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, has now dropped to 48.34.
Before he was appointed captain in February 2017 Root averaged 52.80 in Tests; since then it is 41.16. It is a notable difference – and one which has the tongues of fans and pundits wagging.
The records of Root’s predecessors as captain show it’s far from an exact science. Cook averaged 49.94 as captain, as opposed to 46.34 beforehand, while both Andrew Strauss (40.76 as captain vs 41.04 without) and Nasser Hussain (36.04 vs 38.10) fared similarly regardless of the added responsibility.
It is only when we look at Michael Vaughan (36.02 with captaincy vs 50.98 without) and Michael Atherton (40.58 vs 35.25) where bigger discrepancies emerge.
Unsettled batting order
Naturally a batsman’s form fluctuates throughout his career. Cricket is a game with thousands of variables, with luck one of them. Only Root himself knows whether the England captaincy really is a burden to him right now.
What’s more likely to have caused Root unnecessary strife is the unsettled state of those around him in England’s batting order.
After batting at No4 against Ireland in the first Test of the summer, Root has moved up to No3 to accommodate Joe Denly. Throughout his career Root has often spoken of favouring No4 and the fact that in this series, due largely to Jason Roy’s failures, he’s been forced to the crease after just 7.2 and 9.5 overs at Edgbaston, and 1.3 and 4.1 overs at Lord’s clearly makes run-accumulation more difficult.
Having continually tweaked the batting order previously, England coach Trevor Bayliss is now keen to stick with the current combination even though it’s not producing, and admitted that Roy – who faces a late concussion test – is “probably” being played out of position.
“Just because they’re not scoring runs doesn’t mean it’s not the right or wrong spot for them,” was Bayliss’s explanation on Tuesday. It looks, therefore, like Root will continue to make a sacrifice for the team.
It’s been six years and three months since a 22-year-old Root scored his maiden Test century at Headingley against New Zealand in just his sixth Test.
Considering the balance of the Ashes and his own form, a 17th Test hundred at his home ground this week would be just as memorable.
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