Joe Root has never made any secret of the fact that, on occasion, his admiration for his fellow ‘Yorkie’ Michael Vaughan has crossed the line into the realms of anorakery.
Root freely admits to growing up copying the batting style of the former England captain, though, when discussing this, he does contend somewhat impertinently that “towards the end of his career his technique was slightly flawed”.
The 28-year-old Yorkshireman says his dream was to “follow him across every single brick of a career path that had begun at Abbeydale Park (home of their club Sheffield Collegiate) and reached a podium at the Oval at its zenith.”
The last time Australia were here, in 2015, he went so far as to carry in his kitbag the sweaty old thigh-pad worn by his predecessor a decade earlier when Vaughan was skippering England to their brilliant 2005 Ashes success, and it seemed to do the trick as Root finished man of the series in his side’s 3-2 win.
The first chance Root had to complete that specific journey of emulation, by beating Australia as captain, ended in a dreary 4-0 defeat Down Under 18 months ago.
But as the players prepare to gather for the first Test of the 2019 rematch at Edgbaston, it is getting harder to avoid the feeling that if he and England pull it off this time, Root will have surpassed anything achieved by his idol and “massive inspiration”.
Put simply, along with winning the toss, devising cunning plans for opposition batsmen, changing the bowling, moving fielders around or delivering Churchillian speeches, events on the first morning of the
Test match against Ireland at Lord’s, and the technical and temperamental frailties laid bare by the brilliant Tim Murtagh, seem to confirm that England can only beat Australia this summer if Root also scores a ton of runs.
The relevant statistics continue to alarm…
Including the Test match against Ireland, England have passed 400 just once in 30 attempts and have been dismissed inside 60 overs no fewer than seven times.
The debate over who should make up England’s top order and where Root should bat in it remains as heated as it was prior to the start of the 2017-18 Ashes, when they sent out the following five specialist batters at the ‘Gabba – Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Root at number four, and Dawid Malan.
Since then, and not including night-watchmen Joe Leach and Dom Bess, they have also tried Keaton Jennings, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler and Olly Pope (remember him?) up there and, most recently, Joe Denly and Jason Roy. The list of others who have come and gone since the last home Ashes in 2015 includes Haseeb Hameed, Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance.
As for Root’s position in the side, it looks like Trevor Bayliss may get his call on where the captain bats, with the liklihood that for the good of the team and the balance of the side, he must move up a notch on the ladder and come in at first down. The shocking performance against Ireland and another poor showing was proof that such a shift remains absolutely crucial for England.
Somehow, despite all of the above, England’s record under their latest captain has been respectable, defeats to Australia, New Zealand and West Indies balanced by wins over South Africa, West Indies and in Sri Lanka and a draw with Pakistan.
But, facing an attack of the quality Australia possesses, with David Warner and Steve Smith back with points to prove, surely this time it will take more than middle and lower-order rescue jobs for England to prevail during the next six weeks.
And without wishing to load him with even more pressure on top of that generated by he fact that his one-day counterpart Eoin Morgan has delivered the World Cup to a nation whose interest in the game has been violently re-enthused by that triumph, this is where Root must stand up and let the runs be counted.
Root’s will-to-live might have been all but eroded by the number of times he has been advised to make sure he prioritises his batting above everything else, but it clearly made an impression when he walked out in his first innings as captain and made 190 against South Africa at Lord’s two summers ago.
Since then, however, so the numbers suggest, the growing cares of captaincy, and, in particular the continuing saga of England’s batting failures may have taken their toll.
After that brilliant century against the Proteas in July 2017, Root’s batting average was 54.36. He has scored four further hundreds in fifty innings since then, but in 22 innings since the first Test against India last summer, as well as his three hundreds, he has made 14 scores of 19 or fewer and he will take the field in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston on Wednesday with an average of 49.04 – the lowest it has been for five years.
Paul Farbrace, until the start of the summer assistant coach to Trevor Bayliss, acknowledges the point. But he believes there is cause for optimism.
“I think Joe has finally got to grips with being captain,” he says, “and worked out what he needs to do to be England’s best player as well as being a leader.
“When he first took over there was a temptation to watch and worry about everyone else and get caught up in other things. But he has to remember first and foremost to score runs.
“He’s shown signs in the last couple of series that he’s got to grips with that and I think you’ll see an upturn in him as captain quite quickly.”
Easier said than done, especially when a significant part of the problem is the feeling that he is carrying the batting pretty much on his own at the moment, but England’s supporters will be hoping Farbrace is right. Their chances of watching Root’s career reach a podium at the Oval at its zenith may well depend on it.
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