English cricket has much bigger problems to address than Joe Root’s captaincy
Three matches and three heavy defeats into the series, the Ashes already lost, seven defeats and no wins in eight Tests in Australia as captain, and after a poor year for England’s red-ball team there are several obvious reasons for removing Joe Root from the England captaincy – but I would like him to stick around.
In his book The Captain Class, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker identifies the key characteristics of elite captains which include: extreme doggedness and focus in competition; a low-key, practical and democratic communication style; motivating others with passionate non-verbal displays; strong convictions and the courage to stand apart; and ironclad emotional control. England’s failures will bring criticism, but Root has many of the qualities you would look for in an ideal captain.
He is also incredibly popular among the playing group, meaning he can comfortably socialise with any of the players in his squad. He has a great sense of humour, which helps to put people at ease. Anyone going into that dressing room has a captain who is approachable, knowledgeable, and who they can learn from. What he needs is an experienced coach who is able to provide a vision and strategy across the England set-up, while also helping Joe with his leadership skills and his tactics, reviewing with him sessions of play and decisions made.
Sometimes under Root there have been tactical missteps, both in individual sessions and across entire series. For example he went to Sri Lanka in 2018 wanting the team to play an aggressive style of batting, a different approach to many England sides against Sri Lanka’s spinners, and although that tactic worked in those conditions England then went to the West Indies wanting to continue in that vein. Against good, accurate swing bowling England started the series by being bowled out for 77 when a rather more orthodox attitude was needed.
I have one particularly strong memory of Joe from later in that tour. England were 2-0 down when they arrived in St Lucia for the final Test, and though the team had the day off Joe wasn’t happy with the way he was batting so we went to the beautiful ground at Gros Islet and had two hours in the nets. It was probably my most enjoyable session as a coach, to be with a great player, to listen to how he spoke about the game and watch how he worked on it.
I remember someone asking me when I first took over as England’s batting coach: “What on earth can you tell Alastair Cook?” With players of that calibre you don’t tell them anything, you try to ask the right questions so they problem-solve. In those two hours in the hot Caribbean sun Joe worked hard on his alignment, his bat path and his basics. My job was to listen, to encourage, support, and now and again to challenge. He scored a second-innings century as England won the third Test comfortably.
I think we have seen Joe improve as a captain, but while he has tried to be more proactive it isn’t a particular strength of his. Too often we don’t see him dictating terms through good captaincy.
For example, he dismissed Travis Head in the first innings in Adelaide but has not bowled a single delivery at him since. I’m absolutely convinced that a captain such as MS Dhoni or Kane Williamson would have brought Joe straight on to bowl the next time Head came out. Small things like that can make life uncomfortable for a new batter, and show a flexibility in approach.
Root also often fails to use his fielding positions to create doubt in the minds of incoming batters: stick a man short on the leg side when a batsman is on nought, put someone at silly point, try to build pressure.
But regardless of how good a captain you are, if you’re consistently not scoring enough runs as a team you never have the chance to be innovative with your bowling attack. Problems with player availability and team selection have hindered England in the past year. The big one is Ben Stokes, one of the team’s core players, who missed too much cricket to come in and perform in this Ashes series. Jonny Bairstow has been marginalised despite having a good record as wicketkeeper-batsman, the gloves taken off him, not being consistently picked, and I think his confidence has been affected. His treatment contrasts with that of Jos Buttler, who has never given me the impression that either technically or in terms of mindset he is comfortable batting in Test cricket.
With the bat there is no doubt that Root has led by example. To score 1,708 runs in a calendar year, more than England’s next four highest scorers put together, is a monumental achievement, and his ability to focus on his own personal game despite wickets falling around him and the added concerns of captaincy is phenomenal. And he has also been able to transition from being incredibly successful in short‑form cricket to making thousands of runs in Tests, which for me demonstrates the importance of an orthodox technique.
I remember watching Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul open for India last summer – two players with huge amounts of runs in the Indian Premier League, yet also able to open in a Test against Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in overcast English conditions. With a few exceptions most of the batters who have been able to move between formats have, like Sharma and Rahul, superb defensive technique, good judgment around off stump, and excellent concentration.
When I visited India as assistant coach to England Under-19s in 2016 the insistence within the Indian structure on good batting basics was obvious. Meanwhile I spoke to an MCC coach recently who happily told me that when kids come to Lord’s he tells them to just smack the ball and have fun. There are many significant problems facing English cricket at the moment, and I don’t think Joe Root is one of them.