After a change of sponsor, England’s cricketers have a new word on their chests this summer: “cinch”. So far they have played two Tests in the redesigned shirt – one a humiliating draw, the other a heavy defeat. It feels as if the kit is giving the players an ironic cheer.
Facing the media afterwards – as he does more regularly, more readily and far more reliably than the prime minister – Joe Root declared that this was “the wrong time to start panicking”. Wearing his other hat as a dad, he has surely watched Toy Story, in which Buzz Lightyear, the gormless spaceman, says “This is no time to panic,” and Woody, the only grown-up in the room, replies: “This is the perfect time to panic!”
Now, as England switch to Twenty20 and Root gets six weeks with the family, he may reflect that this is a pretty good time to panic. His team have just lost at home to New Zealand, for the third time ever. They are about to take on India, the best Test team in the world. And then they go to Australia, the hardest place to win in the world. Root’s record there as a captain is won none, drawn one, lost four.
England used to sack captains the way football clubs sack managers – swiftly, brutally, often brainlessly. The selectors once got through four captains in one summer (1988), before appointing a fifth for the summer after. These days, though, the sack itself has been given the boot. Andrew Strauss retired hurt in 2012, shaken by the Kevin Pietersen imbroglio. Alastair Cook fell on his sword in 2017, worn down by serving for a record 59 Tests. And the England hierarchy are obviously not going to sack Root until he fails for a third time to regain the Ashes.
Leadership is all about taking decisions and Root can take this one by himself. His captaincy costs runs. Even after that purple patch earlier this year, his batting average as captain is 44.78, eight down from his previous figure of 52.80. Almost unnoticed, he has slipped out of form: it’s 11 Test innings since he reached 50. At home in the past four summers, according to Wisden, Root has averaged 32. Yes, the Dukes ball makes batting tricky. But England’s best batsman has actually been England’s seventh-best batsman, behind Ben Stokes (average 44), Zak Crawley (43), Jos Buttler (40), Cook (37), Rory Burns (35) and Dom Sibley (35).
It is often said that England can’t afford to carry a specialist captain like Mike Brearley. But can they afford a non-captain like Root? Captains come in two broad types: the intense ones who are students of the game, and the bland ones who get the job by being the best batsman. Nasser Hussain was in the first camp, and so is Virat Kohli (though he happens to be the best batsman as well). Cook was in the second camp, and so is Root: likable, often admirable, but not very interested in the strategy. And so, for nine years since Strauss’s exit, England’s Test team have drifted along amiably.
Root is a good advert for the game – legal, decent, honest and truthful. You can depend on him not to apply sandpaper to the ball or give offence on Twitter. He’s popular with the crowds, who sing his name to the tune of Hey Jude. But they can still do that when he returns to the ranks, and they’ll have more chance because he’ll be batting for longer. Root is not a Ganguly, born to lead; he’s more of a Tendulkar, born to bat and bat. At 30, he should be doing what he does best, not sacrificing a strength to a weakness.
Who would be better, you may ask. The question can be answered with another question: if you ranked England’s Test players as potential captains, where would Root come? In my book, fifth, behind Buttler (the best cricket brain), Stokes (biggest presence), Burns (most experience of captaincy) and Stuart Broad (most street-wisdom). In the past five Tests, with Buttler being rested, Root has looked lost. On Sunday, scraping 11 off 61 balls, he batted like a beaten man. Afterwards he said that England had been out-batted, out-bowled and out-fielded. True, but they had also been out-captained – by an understudy, Tom Latham. New Zealand even ran rings round England with their rotation.
Cricket is a sucker for an aggregate, and Root needs only one Test win as captain to go top of the all-time England list. But that’s because few Tests are now drawn. A better yardstick is wins divided by losses, and here Root trails the modern masters – Brearley (4.5), Ray Illingworth, Michael Vaughan and Strauss (all above 2). He’s on 1.38, between Bob Willis and Mike Denness.
This summer he has already made one medium-sized mistake – saying England would win all seven Tests, abandoning the principle of taking each game as it comes – and one big one: refusing to chase a gettable target at Lord’s. He justified that by saying they couldn’t “go at seven or eight an over”. They didn’t have to: the target was around four.
He is often hopeless at choosing a final XI. In India, he kept picking the team for the game before; against New Zealand, he twice picked a team with no spinner and no proper wicketkeeper. It’s true that some of England’s problems are out of his control. But the one-day team have the same board, the same coach, and the same pool of talent as the Test team. The main difference is the captain. Eoin Morgan is a man with a plan; Root, alas, is not.