It is possible to demonstrate what a phenomenon Joe Root has become by churning out the figures (and we’ll have a go at that later on). But there is another way, which is to use our eyes.
Watch Root at the crease and here is a man effortlessly fulfilling his destiny. He is still only 25; he should be three or four years from his peak, but there he is in the middle, so relaxed in his work, smiling away to his partner, so confident that he can cope. Like Geoffrey Boycott before him, that strip of 22 yards is his natural habitat. It is where he belongs.
Seldom has a batsman evolved so rapidly. It is less than four years since Root made his Test debut in Nagpur (in the same city, though not the same arena, that Alastair Cook first represented England in 2006). His was a surprise selection; England had just won two Tests in a row but Cook had seen the poise with which Root played the spinners in the nets. With the series still undecided Root replaced Samit Patel, which meant that he was also preferred to the more experienced Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan in the team.
The faith was quickly justified by two slow innings from Root, perfect for ensuring the draw: 73 in almost five hours in the first innings followed by an unbeaten 20 in the second. He was required to give a press conference: at little more than a whisper he spoke with a shy understatement that one of his Yorkshire predecessors would have been proud (I’m thinking Len Hutton rather than Boycott).
Root’s next engagement was five days later in the second of two T20 matches, which took place in Mumbai on 22 December. By then most of the really important former-player pundits had gone home so there was a shortage of candidates to give Root his cap on his England T20 debut. So, in a little ceremony, probably far more memorable (and nerve-racking) for me than for Root, I was enlisted to give him his cap and some advice. “You’ll have to play more shots today,” I suggested. He didn’t, since he was not required to bat in an England victory.
He has undoubtedly played more expansively as his career has developed, no matter what colour the ball propelled in his direction. Initially, it was tempting to define him as a Mike Atherton with shots, which may have been unkind (whether to Root or Atherton, I’m not sure). But there was an uncanny reflection of Atherton in his demeanour at the crease and in some of his strokeplay. However, I guess that even the Times cricket correspondent recognises that he has moved on.
Root, despite being dropped at Sydney in January 2014 – with hindsight a brilliant decision since this stung him – has been prepared to explore the parameters of his batting. At Manchester, frustrated by his failures this summer, he reined himself in a little; risks were minimised yet he still purred along, eventually revelling in reverse and slog sweeps. Yet for all the pizzazz of those shots, one stroke that has been in the MCC coaching manual from the start stood out in his innings of 254: the back-foot drive.
This is a shot that has remained in all the editions, yet was seldom seen on the field, even in the orthodox years of the 20th century. The reason for its absence? It is a very difficult stroke to play. My impression is that Ted Dexter would stand and deliver off the back foot in the 60s, but not many others. It is as if Root has reinvented it. Blessed with that extra milli-second to make his move he gets up on to his toes, his eyes in line with the ball and punches blameless deliveries off the back foot through the covers with a perfectly vertical bat. That is enough to demonstrate that he is special.
There are, as promised, some figures as well. After 44 Tests Root has scored 3,875 runs at an average of 56. Of English players only Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe, Jack Hobbs and Kevin Pietersen had scored more after the same number of games. Only Sutcliffe, Hammond, Hobbs and Hutton had higher averages after 44 games. Already he is in rarefied company. If Test matches keep coming at the same rate he will chase Cook, six years his senior, as England’s leading runscorer – provided he stays fit and does not become burdened by the knowledge that so much depends upon him.
Already since his elevation to No3, which seems to be a very good idea happily embraced by Root, there hovers the nasty thought: “What if Joe goes early?” After the Manchester Test Misbah-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, identified Root – with substantial help from Cook – as the difference between the teams. “At Lord’s, Root was out cheaply in both innings and we got Cook cheaply in the second innings,” said Misbah. “Then they struggled. Root and Cook are the main players. They really depend on them.”
Hence, Pakistan have their analysts beavering away to suggest a way to unseat Root. So, too, will all of England’s opponents in the future. At Edgbaston from Wednesday, both teams are likely to be changed. In England’s case this is enforced by the injury to Ben Stokes, good news only to James Vince and Gary Ballance, whose places are now guaranteed for one more Test. The expectation is that Stokes will be replaced by Steven Finn in the final XI.
At the very least, Pakistan must consider dropping Shan Masood, who throughout his brief and diligent career seems to have been disdainfully dismissed by Jimmy Anderson as frequently as Private Pike was by Captain Mainwaring.
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