I thought that I might re-cap on a previous article I wrote on Joe Root. In fact I was kind of provoked into thinking that I might do so. Frustratingly I cannot actually find it on my own blog to link to, so you’ll have to make do with The Cricket Magazine, whose editor Alex is ‘coincidentally’ the source of such provocation anyway. The gist of the original article for those who have trouble clicking on links is that perhaps Joe Root isn’t quite the saviour Geoffrey Boycott, plus several assorted Yorkshire media types, plus several assorted non-Yorkshire media types make him out to be. Perhaps he is just a decent prospect. Perhaps he isn’t the best bet to be opening the batting for England right now. Perhaps we ought to just let him simply play cricket before giving him undue labels.
Then we did that and let him simply play cricket; the Ashes was fought. Well, to say they were fought is probably an overstatement. They happened. Five Tests of gruel. Stop start stuff. Shane Watson bowling 500 balls two foot wide of off stump, Shane Watson getting out LBW, England batting slowly, Australia collapsing every other innings, either side time-wasting, mediocre fielding, awful umpiring, worse DRSing, a bit of rain, 3-0, that will do. It was almost a relief they ended; surely the return series Down Under will have more bite to it?
First of all it must be stated that an average of 37 in your maiden Ashes series is not to be wafted at. Ask Ian Bell: he of pearly and magnificent soft hands; excellent this summer as the stand out batsman from either side with an average of 62. It isn’t wrong to say Bell was the only consistently good batsman from either side, and ultimately his three tons in the first 3 Tests were the difference between the two teams. Yet Bell only managed an average of 17 in his maiden foray against the Old Foe in 2005, plus he got slapped with a pretty dire nickname from Shane Warne to boot.
Yet even minus the familiar slap Root received from a familiarly uncouth Australian, Ian Bell is a good comparison. Not the Ian Bell of this summer: the imperiously deft ‘I might touch myself whilst watching replays of his cover drive’ Ian Bell; rather the Ian Bell of 2005-07. This Ian Bell was never quite the Golden Boy of English cricket as perhaps Root is but he certainly shared common traits: he was establishment before he was established, picked before he possibly warranted picking, and persevered with because it was felt that he had something about him that was a bit above your usual County Championship batsman. Bell was labelled a World Class prospect, and as such he was basically played until he became World Class. If the same occurs with Root then it will be considered a sound investment by the England management.
However to compare Joe Root of 2012-2014 with Ian Bell 2005-2007 is absolutely fine, but it needs context. England in 2005 were a special side for a summer; the stars aligned and they became immense and powerful. A summer later they were unrecognisable. There was no set plan of note, so the selectors could afford to look to the long term. Graham Thorpe retired and there wasn’t a ‘next cab off the rank’ policy in place. It came down to a gamble on some extrovert South African playing for Hampshire, gamble on the wunderkind for Warwickshire, or revert back to someone who had already failed to light up the International stage like Robert Key or Mark Ramprakash. Sometimes, a poor hand requires a gamble.
Comparatively, the England cricket team of the past two years is a settled side with realistic ambitions of cementing themselves at the top of the Test tree. They have a core of top drawer and established players who have proven themselves through their careers. How many of England’s team who played South Africa last summer will play again when they meet in 2015? Injury might well get Graeme Swann by then, but there is a decent chance that Anderson, Broad, Bresnan, Prior, Cook, Trott, Bell, KP and probably Root will be there. That (does the maths) is nearly 90% of the team.
What this is getting at is the fact that there is a plan to the 2013 England team, and the plan for some reason seems to include Joe Root. He is the obvious exception when it comes to experience and proven ability; before his debut at the end of last year it was all the way back in 2009 (Trott and Bresnan) when the last of his fellow certainties made their debut. Between Trott and Root making their debuts, first Test caps have also been awarded to Jonny Bairstow, Nick Compton, Michael Carberry, Eoin Morgan, Samit Patel and James Taylor. Of those, Morgan doesn’t play cricket in whites, Patel was practically picked as a second spinner who could wield a bat on the subcontinent, and Carberry has been recovering from blood clots to his lungs. Otherwise Root’s First Class average since his Yorkshire debut in 2011 is actually lower than that of Bairstow, Compton and Taylor in the same period. Yet it is Root who is the chosen child of English cricket and it is Root who will open the batting for England at the Gabba when the Ashes resumes in a few weeks time.
Root’s fans will point to the magnificent 180 he made at Lords in the Second Test as a counter to this undertone of sneer. It was a great knock – at HQ in front of a packed house – one couldn’t ask for more. Unfortunately Australia’s bowlers managed to skittle him out non-descriptively in his other 9 innings, so will see his backfoot technique as a weakness at the top of the England order. Root’s stint as an opening batsman has gone rather well all things considered, yet the impression is that if Nick Compton had had exactly the same series then he would have been pilloried for slow scoring, accused of mental weakness and told that his only innings of note was on a flat deck so it doesn’t count.
There lies the crux of the distrust, mistrust and wariness over the Root hype. It is not that Root will turn out to be anything other than a very good player. It isn’t even that his current Test record (average: 40.15) is anything other than pretty decent for a batsman new to Test cricket. It is simply that there has been an undeniably preferential treatment for someone who’s face fits in spite of the other indicators given by proven performance. Lord Selvey in the Guardian suggested that Nick Compton’s weakness in terms of being picked by selectors might be that he is ‘anecdotally distant‘. Well if the ability to spin a good yarn to amuse Broady, Swanny and KP could be sacrificed to ensure England don’t end up 30-3 as they were several times in the past summer, it might just be worth the cost.
The impression that this is a “plucky Joe Root vs miserable Nick Compton” debate here is also wrong. It is England’s general selectoral policy shift that is breeding discomfort: the ODI squads that were selected by Ashley Giles to play matches in the fag end of the English summer contained the names of Stokes, Carberry, Ballance and Rankin. None had been part of England’s Test squads during the summer. In those squads we had Compton, Woakes, Taylor and Onions. None of the latter four could be said to have had poor summers in County Cricket or had particularly let themselves down when facing the Aussies. Yet it is the former four ODI players, with far less Test experience, who have mysteriously leapfrogged ahead of them despite, in the case of some, not having had particularly good First Class seasons. Root actually had a very strong County summer on top of his
troubles magnificent 180 in the Ashes, and is no longer the most stark example of this confusing selection policy – Carberry over Taylor anyone? Tremlett over Onions?!
Taking everything into account, Root deserves a spot in the Test side this winter for England. As the man in possession he has done little wrong and at this stage that should be enough to retain his place even if it was not enough for Compton. However promising a player he could be though, he has a lot to prove – he has currently scored less Test centuries than Ravi Bopara in spite of having had two more innings. So he could be a great player with his name etched in first on the teamsheet for years to come and a record to rival Alastair Cook’s in 10 years time. Or Ryan Harris might have worked him out and we will never see him again.