Walking into 2021, England’s hopes of a Test salvation was high on cards, or at least that was what they desired. But the end product that has now left them in bitter taste is far away from what they would have conceptualized.
England’s Test problems are deeply ‘rooted’ and if you ignore the pun, you would still understand the direction that we are going. In 2021, the Three Lions have lost nine Tests, the joint-most for any calendar year since they first started playing international cricket. To pepper and salt some context, only Bangladesh have lost more Tests in a calendar year than England.
It is yet another year where they haven’t quite made sense of their resources, their direction in Test cricket and mostly have a vision enough to succeed at the highest level. Every fix that they have tried have been short-term basis and every decision that they have taken, seemingly on a punt. But little does punt help in a transformation.
England’s batting woes have been well highlighted throughout the year and let us start from the top. In 29 innings this year, the Three Lions’ batting display, where they average a meagre 24.13 runs per wicket, the lowest returns for English batting in any year where they have played at least ten Tests.
But yet, several players have been switching hands like it was a broken political party and a terrible democratic system. At the helm of the entire catastrophe has been England skipper Joe Root. Following yet another loss, Root came in absolute shambles before expressing that he is “absolutely gutted”.
Succession: Root edition
Root also asked for some restoration work in the pride department from his team but mere asking in front of the press doesn’t quite show your worth as a skipper, does it? An uncensored Geoffrey Boycott made a damning impression of the Three Lions and the skipper Root, in particular.
"Now Australia are 3-0 up and the Ashes have gone, will Root please stop saying Australia are not much better than us? I don't mind him living in cuckoo land but stop trying to kid us," Boycott wrote in his column in The Telegraph.
"If he really believes what he says then maybe it is time he gave up the captaincy of the England cricket team. The facts are staring us all in the face, except Joe doesn't want to see it. England can't bat. Our bowling is ordinary."
For the Yorkshire man, 2021 is bittersweet. Personally, it has been the finest year for Root, the batsman, with 1700 Test runs but as skipper Joe, it has been shambles. Across all three Tests, forget three, for most parts of the year, England have looked like yet another County side, who are trying to figure their way out of escaping relegation.
But in international cricket, unfortunately and thankfully for England, there is no relegation. And sadly, England are bearing the brunt of that as well. Despite having a pathbreaking year with the bat, the onus lies on Root and his shoulders for skippering a batting unit that has looked jittery.
Should Root be removed as the skipper?
After a scathing loss at the hands of Australia, 3-0, the pressure on Root – the skipper – has increased. Be it not fielding James Anderson in the Adelaide Test, or dropping Stuart Broad for the Melbourne Test, Root has had a torrid time as a skipper. There are two sections of people, one who want Root to continue as the skipper as he is their best player.
And the other, want Root to be removed and solely focus on his batting. Unfortunately for the second half of the people, Root’s performance has not been affected by his captaincy. In fact, as skipper, the Yorkshire batter has scored 4937 runs, averaging 47.47, with 26 half-centuries and 12 centuries, in which half the Test centuries came this year.
Captaincy has brought some sheen to Root’s batting but the pertinent point of him skippering the side because he is their best batsman is quite appalling. The Yorkshire man’s decision-making has in the past impacted England as well, with the entire workload management issues with Jofra Archer, a move that has definitely pegged back English cricket by a year or two.
The biggest of it all: Root’s bomb after the crushing defeat in Adelaide. The 30-year-old criticized the bowlers for not bowling ‘good lengths’ but Ricky Ponting made a telling statement. The former Australian skipper criticized the English skipper and stated that if he couldn’t influence the team from the ground, there wasn’t any point of criticizing.
"I nearly fell off my seat when I heard that. Whose job is it then to make them change? Why are you captain then?" Ponting said of Root's post-match comments.
"Joe Root can come back and say whatever he likes but if you're captain, you've got to be able to sense when your bowlers aren't bowling where you want them to,” he added.
More pertinently, Ponting noticed that the English bowlers bowled fuller lengths, targeted the tougher channels on day four during the first session when Ben Stokes took charge of the Three Lions, where they were quite evidently successful. While that would not only give England a batter tactician but also will free Root of his responsibilities, bolstering his batting.
Ben Stokes or Jos Buttler – who takes over?
The natural successor for the English throne is Ben Stokes – not just because he is the vice-captain but because he has a natural sense of decision making, which could influence the proceedings. Stokes is also part of the leadership group, making him one of the leading contenders to be the next Test skipper.
But Stokes becoming the skipper has complexity in two departments, his past disciplinary issues, which is also one of the major reasons that England have not yet contemplated enough to make him the leader. And the other, the fact that Stokes is still an integral part of the Three Lions setup across all the three formats.
“That’s totally Joe’s decision. He shouldn’t be forced into doing it. I’m sure [Alastair] Cooky felt the same way. He did it for so long. When he knew his time was up, his time was up. Those discussions haven’t been entered anywhere near Joe," Stokes said ahead of the fourth Test.
“Captaincy is more than about setting fields, picking the team, making decisions out there in the middle. A captain is someone you want to go out and play for. Joe Root is someone I always want to play for. Chris Silverwood exactly the same. He’s a real players’ coach. He stands up for you as individuals and players as well," he added.
Making him the Test captain comes with its own complications, with Stokes returning to competitive action only before the Ashes series. In the past, he has had his own fair share of injuries and if he does become the skipper of the Test side, he would have no choice but to play all three formats.
The only walkthrough here is if Stokes decides to take off from one format, T20Is, which would then allow him to feature without the burden of workload. During his stint as the skipper, in limited capacity, he has already left a mark with his tactical acumen, showing why he is one of the prime options to replace Root as the Test skipper.
For Buttler becoming a Test captain, a lot of things has to fall his way, which right now looks mortally impossible. But the credentials as a leader has always been there with Buttler, who has in the past led sides. However, his place in the Test side is still not the most convincing one yet, with doubts over his caliber as the wicketkeeper-batsman in the side.