Joe Root has played 103 Tests, captained in 50, and scored more runs – at an average touching 50 – than any Englishman bar Alastair Cook and Graham Gooch. If he quit now, he would already go down as an England great. But opposition bowlers be warned: Root believes he is about to embark on the best phase of his career.
As England prepare for Wednesday’s first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, he sounds at ease with the task ahead – a potentially momentous eight-month period which includes five-match series against India and Australia, and could end with his face chiselled into English cricket’s imaginary Mount Rushmore.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and Ashes tours can be brutal. But Root, who turned 30 in December, seems in a good place. Scores of 228, 186 and 218 in successive Tests in Sri Lanka and India earlier this year reasserted his membership of the so-called Fab Four – with Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson – and he has strengthened his grip on the tiller.
England captain Joe Root believes he is about to embark on the best phase of his career
England play Kane Williamson’s New Zealand before a five Test series against Virat Kohli’s India
Joe Root is in fine batting form across 2021
The recent departure of Ed Smith as national selector has created a streamlined set-up that allows Root more say in who plays under him, while his relationship with head coach and fellow Yorkshireman Chris Silverwood is rock solid.
He has the respect of his senior team-mates, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. He has even started taking wickets with his underrated off-spin, including an absurd five for eight at Ahmedabad.
‘I feel I’ve grown a lot in the past year or so, and now have a good handle on things,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I was obviously disappointed with the way India finished, but I do feel we’re making big strides as a Test group, and we’re coming into an exciting phase of games, which could really see us flourish.’
Above all, perhaps, a penny has dropped. At Galle and Chennai in January and February, Root batted with a single-mindedness that has too often been missing. It was as if he had grasped that turning seventies into double-hundreds was not in fact selfish, but the best means to victory. Leading by example is suddenly the template.
Then comes England’s attempts to regain the Ashes when they head Down Under to Australia
‘I certainly feel the best is still to come,’ he says. ‘I want to have more series like the start of this winter, and produce those big hundreds which help you win series. I’m hungry to make the next phase of my career the peak.
‘I’ve worked very hard on a few aspects of my game, the mental side as well as technical. I feel a lot more in control, and like I’m playing the ball much later. That, for me, is the art of batting – if you can keep your head and hands as close together as possible, you give yourself a better chance. Hopefully I can have a bumper year.’
And the Fab Four? ‘I think that’s more for cricket lovers than the four lads who are talked about. It’s really nice to be in the same conversation as those three, because they’re wonderful players. But it’s about producing, not about what’s said about you.’
Root, who was speaking at the launch of cinch’s partnership with England cricket, has been in charge of the Test team for well over four years, which is usually the moment England captains start to ponder life beyond the boundary.
Root reasserted his spot in the Fab Four with Kohli, Babar Azam (left) and Steve Smith (right)
Cook lasted four and a half years, Andrew Strauss three and a half, Kevin Pietersen a matter of months. Michael Vaughan came close to five years, and Nasser Hussain managed four. Before Alec Stewart’s brief reign, Mike Atherton did four and a half, Gooch three and a half.
There is an established shelf life, and Root – in theory – ought to be approaching his. But he appears to view his place in the captaincy cycle as closer to the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Tellingly, he cites Graeme Smith, who led South Africa in a world-record 108 Tests between 2003 and 2014.
‘Everyone’s journey is different,’ he says. ‘I do think there’s a time when you have to call it, or someone calls it for you, but Graeme Smith’s shelf life was a lot longer than most. I hope this isn’t a massive discussion over the next period, and I’m leading from the front with a lot of runs.’
If Root is warming to his task, then he is also careful not to depict seven home Tests and five in Australia as a blank slate following the 3-1 defeat on extravagantly turning pitches in India.
Root cited Graeme Smith, who led South Africa in a world-record 108 Tests between 2003 and 2014 with regards to his own captaincy cycle
‘You have to learn and evolve,’ he says. ‘Those experiences will at some point hold us in good stead, and it’s important we don’t just ignore what happened out there.
‘We’re going to be playing in very different conditions this summer, and in the Ashes, but there are elements of India we can take forward. One thing we can draw from it is the pressure side in those difficult situations: how do you handle it mentally, how do you transfer it to other parts of the world?’
Also part of Root’s in-tray is the question of discrimination, especially racial, and English cricket’s response. Last summer, the Test and one-day players took a knee before games against West Indies and Ireland, then stopped for the visits of Pakistan and Australia. Michael Holding called the change of tack ‘lame’.
‘It’s something we have talked a huge amount about, and feel really strongly about,’ says Root. ‘It’s very important that the game is for everyone and we do everything we can as a side to make sure everyone is fully aware of that.
‘I know we will continue to have those discussions and work very hard to use our platform as international players to make the game as diverse as we can. You’ll certainly see that with things we’ll put into action this summer.’
Root said he understood why some criticised the decision to stop taking a knee halfway through the summer
Asked if he can understand why some criticised the decision to stop taking a knee halfway through the summer, Root hesitates, then settles for a clipped one-word answer that may reveal as much as it hides: ‘Yeah.’
It is a reminder that the job of a Test captain in the third decade of the 21st century transcends scoring runs and winning series. And that’s before we get on to life under Covid, in the ‘safe living environment’, as Root calls it – part of England’s efforts to move on from ‘bubble’ and its oppressive connotations.
If that means he is not always able to call on his first-choice team because of the new rest-and-rotation policy, so be it.
‘It’s paramount that the players’ welfare is first and foremost,’ he says. ‘I think we’ve actually dealt with it pretty well, and the guys have been honest and open with where they’re at. We will see benefits of it in the long term. It’s difficult to get that balance right, but we’ve tried to do right by the players.’
On the field, Root believes his players are starting to do right by him and are more consistent
On the field, he believes his players are starting to do right by him. ‘We know we’re not the best team in the world currently, and there’s real room for improvement,’ he says.
‘But we’ve started to be more consistent in certain areas which have let us down in the past. We’re scoring bigger first-innings runs. We’re taking 20 wickets more frequently away from home. If we can continue that trend, we’ll be knocking on the door sooner rather than later.’
And if Root’s bat may need to do much of the knocking, you suspect he’s ready.
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