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Is captaincy weighing too heavily on Joe Root?

November 30th, 2019Cricket

Out for a dismal 2 and 11 in England’s crushing defeat to New Zealand in the first test of their tour, Joe Root’s batting has come under the spotlight as pundits point out his decline in form since becoming England captain.

Questionable tactical decisions nullify England’s positive momentum

Despite England’s promising start of 244-4 on day one, England’s innings fizzled out to a workmanlike 353 all out. New Zealand then went about their innings in true test match style amassing a massive 615-9 declared. Again Root was singled out for some questionable captaincy, perhaps most noticeably the over bowling of Archer. In particular, that Archer was asked to bowl so many short balls. He is a better bowler than that and New Zealand found him out pretty easily on a flat wicket, nullifying his attack and piling on the runs despite his best efforts. Archer ended up bowling 42 overs, just 5 short of spinner, Jack Leach’s work load, for only 1 wicket. 

The icing on the critics’ cake was England’s capitulation in the second innings, going down for just 197 thus losing the test match by an innings and 65 runs. New Zealand’s star performers being the Watling’s ‘daddy’ double century (205) and Wagner’s impressive 5 for 44 bowling in England’s second innings.

England’s test performance critics out in vociferous force

Once again England’s detractors were out in force on social media.

Michael Vaughan said of Root:

“England are losing and he is not scoring runs. This has been an awful year in test cricket for him and the team. England are going to end 2019 without beating a major team in a test series.

Joe Root insists he is not under pressure. As a captain you have to say that publicly, but he will be feeling it inside.”

And the stats do back up Vaughan’s critique of Root’s declining form. Since becoming captain his batting average has taken a precipitous nose dive. Following this latest defeat Root has now dropped out of the world’s top 10 batters for the first time since August 2014. Root's average in 2019 is 27.40 from 10 Tests, compared with 47.35 over his career as a whole. Since succeeding Alastair Cook as Test captain in 2017, the Yorkshire batsman's average has fallen from 52.80 to 39.70.

It is hard to make a case against his role as captain having an adverse effect on his batting career, although Root himself remains phlegmatic about the situation. After the match he reflected:

“I’m not far away, I played two horrendous shots in the last game (but) the fact I’m getting myself out, you can deal with that.

“I’m moving well, hitting the ball well. I’ve just got to keep that mentality ... get my feet moving, stay busy, and go about my business as I have for four or five years.

“I’ve got to trust that that’s going to come.”

It was not very long ago that Root was considered one of the ‘big four’ of world elite batsmen alongside Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith, but few would place him in such illustrious company as things stand at the moment.

The pressures of England captaincy have weighed heavily on many a superstar’s career. Think back to Andrew Flintoff’s woeful stint or perhaps even worse, that of Kevin Peterson. It takes a very particular mentality to compartmentalise the pressures of leading a team and performing as an individual on the biggest stage of them all, the international test arena.

Michael Vaughan, ex England captain who led his team to their famous 2005 Ashes series victory is perhaps best place to offer his insight on Root’s dilemma and the incredible pressure a captain is always under:

“Looking from the outside he seems fine. He has been calm and composed in the interviews I have seen. But what is going on internally? Only he knows that. People used to guess how I was feeling inside as captain, but they had no idea.

“He is struggling. I do not think he is assessing the game quickly enough and he is going to the short-ball option too soon, especially with Jofra Archer in the first test against New Zealand.

“It is hard, however, to be a captain when you have a bowling attack that looks innocuous in those conditions. I do not know many captains who would have put New Zealand under pressure on that pitch with what he had to work with.”

Support for Root’s captaincy remains staunch among both ECB and players

There is a general wish for stability at the top of the team amongst the ECB’s Ashley Giles and new head coach Chris Silverwood. Both would like to see Root take the team through to the next Ashes series in autumn 2021 but that must surely rely on the improving form of the team and Root’s mental resilience throughout. 

He has strong support from his teammates and in particular his vice captain, Ben Stokes. Interviewed after their defeat to New Zealand, Stokes was quick to deflect attention away from his captain and on to the team as a whole:

"We stick together and we hold our hands up together.

"He is England's best player and he knows he has got the full support of us in the changing room. The pressures of being England Test captain are huge. It can be one of the most criticised jobs in England at times - sometimes unfairly, I would say.

"There are 11 guys out on the field in a game who contribute to a win or loss. It doesn't all fall on the captain."

Hopefully England and Root can bounce back quickly and win the second of two test matches against New Zealand. But the Black Caps will have victory on their minds as well, looking for revenge after several notable defeats in 2019, including the World Cup final.
 
Time will tell if this is just a blip in form as Root believes or if it is symptomatic of a deeper problem for the under-pressure captain. Ultimately he will have to make a decision between his leadership role and his legacy as a world class batsman if England do not return to consistent winning ways soon.