Nigel Henderson argues that the England captain’s poor conversion rate of fifties to hundreds has an unexpected cause.
When Joe Root stumbled towards the offside in trying to play Josh Hazlewood round his pad and through mid-wicket in the second innings of England’s defeat in Brisbane – the resulting leg-before was obvious to most watching if not, immediately, the batsman himself – a rare moment of possible insight was offered by Kevin Pietersen. He suggested that Root’s slight over-balancing act was a small technical deficiency arising from his response to the short-pitched bowling threat the Australian attack carried, positing that the England captain was primed – perhaps to too great a degree – to take avoiding action.
If that is true, it suggests Australia have already won one of the most significant battles of their Ashes summer. But it seems unlikely: Hazlewood is by no means the meanest or fiestiest of the pace trio, and certainly less likely to rap you in the grill than Mitchell Starc at his most bellicose. And even if it was true it suggests that Root’s attempts at evasion are flawed. Perhaps he could learn from the likes of Robin Smith who would watch the ball almost on to the tip of his nose before swaying out of the way.
Yet, suggestions that problems have found their way into the technique of Root, who has appeared devoid of obvious faults in his 61-Test career to date, may not necessarily be a cause for angst among England supporters. They may, in fact, help to focus his mind.
Joe Root: the boy with all the gifts
Much has been made of Root’s inability to turn fifties into hundreds, and that particular spotlight is shining more brightly on the England captain in this series because a direct comparison can be made with his overachieving Australian counterpart, but the irony is that there have been times when this country has been crying out for a middle-order batsman of his rare consistency and in most eras we would celebrate his achievements for what they are. At the still comparatively young age of 26 he has hit more than 5,300 runs at an average of 53. In 46 of his 112 innings, he has passed fifty – that’s a remarkable rate of 41 per cent. For the record, Steve Smith’s percentage is 40 and among the others that he is most often compared with, Kane Williamson’s is 38 per cent, Virat Kohli’s 31.
So he’s a victim of his own success, yes, but there is something more: it is my contention that Joe Root has become mesmerized by his own talent. This is why he has been unable to push on to become what we all think he will be – one of the best batsmen in history. There is even a moment – an innings – that I feel I can identify when he was finally bewitched by his own brilliance.
It was South Africa, late 2015. It was the second innings of the first Test in Durban, where he had advanced to 73 in completely untroubled fashion. He had uncoiled the complete repertoire – drives through the covers, the merest change of angle of the face of the bat taking the ball between fielders, on-drives threaded straight of mid-wicket but wide of mid-on, sweeps backward of square or in front at will – when he tried a cut at a length ball from Kyle Abbot and was caught at slip. It was a shot variously described as “throwaway” “half-hearted” and “ambitious”. What it was not, though, was ordinary or orthodox. It was something different, not from the MCC coaching manual, not even from Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket. It was a creation all his own, from his own unpublished Book of Batting, made up on the hoof there and then.
Many will say it owed something to cricket’s other formats – and it should be remembered that Root is a high achiever in white-ball international cricket, where he averages 50 in 50-over cricket and just shy of 40 in T20s – but it was not only that. The Yorkshireman has been gifted such a smorgasbord of strokes by the gods of cricket that he cannot resist trying out a few of the more outlandish from time to time.
That results in an antipathy to boredom that he needs to work through – something he could better understand from observing Smith; his opposite number may not be the greatest entertainer, especially in an aesthetic sense, but he has cracked the tyranny of tedium, learned to stave off any fear of monotony. He does what it takes to get the job done, even if that means ignoring a dozen deliveries in the process; it is surely struggles with an awkward technique that have brought him to this point.
So, if, as Pietersen suggests, one or two technical deficiencies are working their way into Root’s game, why on earth should this be a reason for optimism, you might ask? I have previously suggested that this series is primarily a straight shoot-out between two pairs of batsmen: Cook and Root on one side, Smith and Warner on the other. After the first Test at the Gabba, England trail that particular contest 74 to 245.
However, batsmen of any serious calibre recognise that their best innings are not always forged when the going is good. Those days when the ball springs off the middle of the bat as if to order can lure you into a false sense of security. Concentration dips and before you know it you are back in the pavilion, sawn off in your prime, a sense of gnawing dissatisfaction in your belly. In contrast, those days when you are scratching around in a desperate search for timing can force you to apply yourself more assiduously, remind you that things don’t necessarily always come easy. Maybe the timing does come, eventually, maybe it never quite does but often in such scenarios you end up with a 250-ball hundred rather than a coruscating 45-ball half-century.
Maybe, then, if Root finds himself overbalancing when he comes to the crease in Adelaide, if he finds his pad an impediment to the downswing of his bat, he should welcome the fact and realise it gives him a wonderful opportunity to provide his team with the big innings they desperately require from him.