When 2018 began, Joe Root averaged a handsome 52.5 in 64 Tests. It was the fourth highest average amongst active players who had played more than 10 Tests. The others in the top 5 were Steve Smith (63.6), Virat Kohli (53.8), Cheteshwar Pujara (53) and Kane Williamson (50.6). Root was truly a part of the ‘Fab Four’ - a term coined by the late Martin Crowe back in 2014, acknowledging the quartet as next generation’s batting greats.
However, in the last two years, Root seemed to have faded out of that league. Kohli presently has an average of 53.6, Smith 62.8, Williamson 51; all of them maintaining the same consistent level. But Root has dropped down to 48.4. At the age of 28, batsmen are generally expected to be at the peak of their prowess. Root, on the contrary, has fallen off.
Root averaged 41.2 and 37 in 2018 & 2019 respectively. While these are still more than decent numbers given how Test batting has been a tough job of late, the impact of Root’s runs is a separate story highlighting his failure to lead from the front. Since 2018, amongst the Fab Four, he has contributed the least to victories.
If you take his overall career into account, Root (18.4 percent) is ahead of Kohli (15.8) and marginally behind Williamson (18.9) and Smith (19). But figures in the last two years show Root has clearly lagged behind.
Mind you, Kohli has played some memorable knocks in losing causes during a tough overseas cycle for India - 153 in Centurion, 149 in Birmingham and 123 in Perth. Smith, being Smith, helped Australia retain the Ashes almost single-handedly. He scored 144 and 142 in Birmingham, staging the most astounding comeback ever, followed by a dogged 92 at Lord’s and further hammered a double ton in Manchester, while coming back from a concussion-related blow to the head from Jofra Archer. Williamson’s back-to-the-wall 139 in Abu Dhabi in 2018 clinched New Zealand’s first away Test series win against Pakistan in 49 years. Earlier in 2020, his 89 in Wellington helped New Zealand set up a 1-0 lead against the visiting Indian side.
Root, although having scored four hundreds, has just one innings - 124 at Pallekele - that can be deemed series-defining. Two of his other three hundreds - 125 against India at The Oval, 122 against West Indies at Gros Islet - came when the series was already won and lost respectively. His 226 at Hamilton last year never put England in a position of effecting a series-levelling victory against New Zealand.
Root has had a fair share of chances to put his stamp over a match like Kohli, Smith and Williamson did in aforementioned cases. He walks out to bat in tough situations, tougher considering most of them are in England where the Duke ball swings through the entirety of the innings. He gets himself in and looks set for a big score. Since 2018, he has scored a fifty in every third Test innings, similar to that of Kohli and Williamson but when it comes to scoring hundreds, he falls way behind due to a poor conversion rate. He overcomes the situation and conditions but somehow fails to convert his fifties into anything more substantial.
Starting a new innings is always the toughest time for any batsmen. For the England Test captain, inexplicably, those tough times begin once he crosses the 50-run mark.
During Root’s toughest phase in Test cricket, his ODI numbers though surprisingly have stayed afloat. The Yorkshire-born has averaged 59.1 in 2018 and 50.1 in 2019. Delving into it further suggests that this consistency actually came at the cost of his Test numbers.
The habit of playing excessively outside the off-stump to keep rotating the strike in ODIs has inadvertently pervaded Root’s batting technique in Tests. In the last two years, the percentage of deliveries left alone by him against pacers has nosedived from the previous block of two years each since his debut in December, 2012.
For a batsman who plays a majority of his games in England, it is extremely critical to leave balls outside off-stump with astute judgement. In Root’s case, the stark contrast to the demands of batsmanship in white and red-ball cricket seems to be preventing him from asserting himself as an all-format batsman.
At present, Root is an underappreciated asset in ODI cricket where his unrivalled skills in tackling quality spin is rare in a team full of dashers. The three-match ODI series between India and England in 2018 is a great example of the right-hander’s brilliance in England’s ODI setup.
His conversion rate for hundreds in ODIs since 2018 is 40 percent, ahead of Smith (14.3) and Williamson (36.4). With lateral movement almost eradicated from ODI cricket, Root rotates the strike brilliantly but the same exercise in Test cricket, with a packed slip cordon and the moving ball, is turning out to be an Achilles heel for him. Most of the frustration around Root’s poor conversion rate in Test cricket centers around unproductive pokes.
Another aspect of Root’s batting is his tendency to stay on the back foot. Amongst the current England batsmen with over 700 Test runs since 2018, Root has the second highest percentage of balls faced on the back foot against pacers.
Once again, the excessively moving ball in Test cricket comes into the picture which when met on the front foot can enable Root to counter late movement.
Captaincy is considered as another factor behind Root’s slump. In his first 53 Tests as a player, Root averaged 52.8. Since taking over the baton from Alastair Cook, the number has fallen to 42.9 in 92 Tests.
England, at present, need Root, the batsman a lot more than Root, the captain. As a team, they have scored 29 runs per wicket, ranked fourth in the list of highest team batting averages since 2018. But when it comes to the top seven, they slump down to seventh spot - averaging 31.7. This clearly means their lower-order has been stepping up while their top-order remains under par.
The skipper, with most 50-plus scores (17) in the considered period, can turn it around by converting his starts. Their lacklustre batting was a big reason England failed to get their hands on the Ashes at home in 2019 for the first time in the last 18 years. Root has only 794 runs in England since 2018 with seven 50-plus scores. Smith, on the other hand, scored 774 runs in the 2019 Ashes alone (in only seven innings) with six 50-plus scores.
The right-hander can also step up by batting at three. Root has expressed his fondness for the number four slot and every batsman has the right to choose to bat at his preferred spot. But England have often tinkered with the balance of the side in order to sneak in an extra batsman in the top three to accommodate Root at his favorite spot. He batted at three in the 2019 Ashes but quickly reverted back to four in the next series in New Zealand. Given that he comes out to bat with England inevitably tottering around 20 for two, a permanent move to three can help his team build a stronger XI which currently has too many players contesting for a spot in the middle-order.
The England Test captain is an excellent player of both spin and pace. He has scored runs everywhere and averages above 38, if not 40, in every country where he has played more than two Tests. There is certainly, no doubt about the talent he possesses but currently it is not enough. His has been a tale of unfulfilled starts and he needs to put more life into his knocks to keep himself afloat in the ‘Fab Four’ club. The big break influenced by COVID-19 can turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the England captain to get his Test batting numbers back on track.