Joe Root forgets England’s toils and refinds secret to batting immortality

If you wanted, you could still probably pick a few holes. He edged a few through the slips. He got bogged down a little in the 90s, and then again in the 150s. He didn’t hit a single six. Does an innings even still count these days if it isn’t accompanied by a big flashing bar along the bottom of the screen screaming “OH YEAH”? Most unforgivably of all, Joe Root’s unbeaten 180 against India lasted almost nine hours. Good luck fitting that into BBC Two’s teatime schedule.

In a way, this would be entirely in keeping with the past few years of his England career, a period curiously defined not by all the things he has achieved, but all the things he hasn’t. He averages 40 when he should be averaging 50. He scores fifties when he should be scoring hundreds. His team keeps losing series and getting bowled out for 130. He needs to bat at No 3. He needs to stop batting at No 3. He needs to play more Twenty20. He needs a break.

Root’s first three years as captain – between early 2017 and early 2020 – felt like an exhaustive tutelage in the daunting size and tedious scale of the job. There comes a point early in the life of all captains when they start to fancy themselves Kubla Khan: standing atop their stately pleasure dome, looking down on their chasms of ceaseless turmoil, wondering how they might recast the game in their own beatific image.

It never quite works out like that. As Root would find out, his dream job would consist largely of team meetings, hopeful pointing and endless questions about batting collapses and Jofra Archer. Over time, you could sense a certain joy and energy draining from him.

Michael Vaughan reckons the shelf life of an England captain is about five years. This is Root’s fifth and it has washed in on a lifeless ocean of disease, disinterest, isolation, his first home series defeat as captain and the mental health struggles of his friend Ben Stokes.

And yet, something deeply weird has happened. Somewhere on the long and lonely journey to his inevitable fate, Root rediscovered the secret to batting immortality. The sort of innings that other batsmen play in their dreams, Root has begun to play in his sleep. There was the 228 and the 186 in Galle, the 218 in Chennai, the 109 in Nottingham last week and now this glorious fifth symphony, all of them composed since January. He will almost certainly smash Mohammad Yousuf’s record for Test runs in a calendar year.

All while the team he captains seems to be crumbling around his ears. So just what is going on here?

Perhaps the answer, paradoxically, lies in the rubble of England’s recent form. Batting and captaincy are often described as two completely different skillsets and in most respects they are: one a function of athletic ability, the other of character.

For most of Root’s time as captain one seems to have been working against the other: the single-minded tunnel vision required to hone his game to the highest standards, versus the empathy and perspective demanded to captain a fragile team through a period of great flux.

But what if – quietly – the two jobs have essentially merged into one? What if the past 18 months have shown Root the limits of his influence? He can’t fix the domestic schedule or produce a new opening batsman out of thin air or slow the march of franchise T20 or put cricket back in state schools or cure Covid-19. He can’t even get himself back into the T20 side: his one innings for the Trent Rockets in the Hundred was a first-ball duck.

The only thing he can do to help his team win – the only thing he could ever do, really – was score runs. At a time when his runs are more needed than ever before, that sharpening of focus seems to have stoked his appetite for batting greatness.

It was a blissful Saturday here, the sun shining, the cricket of relentlessly high quality, the game beautifully poised. There were even plenty of women and children in the stands, which must have been a source of immense puzzlement to the ECB and its market research.

Perhaps, ultimately, all you really need to sell the game is a great setting, a meaningful contest, and just a touch of genius out in the middle.