Joe Root’s legacy as player and captain may still depend on this Ashes
As anyone who has ever suffered from fear of flying knows, distraction is key. Anything to trick the brain into forgetting that you and it are hurtling through the ether in the cramped belly of a giant tin bird. Distraction. By any means possible.
Booze might be the answer for some, the David Boon approach to air travel. Maybe you swear by that “make fists with your toes” thing or try to take your mind off the turbulence and terrifying sounds by strapping some headphones on and endlessly repeating the frightened flyers’ mantra about it being more likely you will perish after a chance encounter with a shark than through air travel. Or was it a vending machine?
More rational souls seek solace with thoughts of the destination, of exciting adventures in store. On the flip side, perhaps the relative sanctuary and safety of the aeroplane is far preferable to what awaits beyond the tarmac after touchdown.
Joe Root probably isn’t a twitchy flyer, “aerophobia” being relatively incompatible with the globetrotting demands of an international cricketer. Nevertheless he could be forgiven for finding himself somewhere between the two states of mind when he boards the flight to Australia on Thursday.
If there is a twinge of despair in the departure lounge or a wave of panic amid the clouds it could be because the next few weeks might well define his legacy as a batter and as a captain.
To the bat first. Root has enjoyed a remarkable run of form in 2021. In 12 Test matches, beginning with Sri Lanka in January and India home and away since, he has swept, stroked, glanced, cut, driven, defended and dominated against searing pace and devilish spin. On Asian dustbowl and English green-top, under Chennai sun and Pennine cloud. Root has been an almost constant figure at the crease, runs flowing from his blade with surgeon-like precision; 1,455 of them at an average a tick over 66. His six centuries this calendar year include three double centuries, a 186 and a 180 not out. With the rest of England’s top order quacking and creaking of late, Root’s runs have been increasingly imperative.
If England are to get even the pinkiest of fingers around the urn during five Test matches in Australia on deathly-dull drop-in batter-friendly pitches, Root surely has to pick up where he left off and extend his purple patch up to Christmas and beyond.
But here’s the rub. Root has never scored a century in Australia. In fact, as he cruises over the vast expanses on Friday, he will be unable to recall too many happy memories from his intended destination. Oz has been his bogey-land, he has an average of 38 in his nine Tests down under. While the lofty 30s might be a mere pipe dream for some of the top-order batters who have made the plane, that’s a significant drop-off for Root whose career average after 109 Tests is north of 50. He has made no secret of his desperation to put this record straight.
Root has also pointed to the pain of being dropped for the 2014 Sydney Test after a quiet tour in which he occasionally looked cowed at the crease. To be fair, in that series the half-man-half-velociraptor Mitchell Johnson was ravaging his way through England’s batting lineup repeatedly, making even the most seasoned players yearn for the departure lounge.
The memory of missing out in that game inspired Root to improve. “Cooky sat me down and said: ‘It’s a tough call but you are not going to play in this game.’” He opened up to fellow Sheffield Collegiate alumnus and England captain Michael Vaughan in 2015. “I can’t remember what I did for the next hour. I was gone. I was an empty vessel … but then I was absolutely spewing. I was so angry and gutted because I had not scored runs, not because I thought I deserved to play.”
Four years later, Sydney again, but a different type of spewing. A debilitating bout of viral gastroenteritis struck Root down. Now captain and with England battling to stay in the game – the urn long since relinquished – Root spent time hooked up to a drip at St Vincent’s hospital up the road from the Sydney Cricket Ground. Although he briefly made it back to the ground and out into the middle, he was physically unable to continue. Forced to retire on 58 not out after nearly four hours of batting with a raging fever in temperatures topping 50 degrees. At the moment of defeat he was passed out on a bench in the dressing room. Jimmy Anderson had to stand in for his stricken captain to do the media postmortem.
Despite this, when Root boards the plane to Queensland this week it might even be with a sigh of relief. At last, it is on. The prospect of Messrs Cummins, Hazelwood, Starc and Lyon – each in possession of their own fearful projectiles – lying in wait at the Gabba on 8 December – is far preferable to the uncertainty and speculation of the past few months.
At one stage there were rumblings that those with young families – Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, potentially even Root himself – would in effect be left with little choice but to rule themselves out of the tour due to the stringent quarantine regulations in place.
The prospect of a cad’s tour to Oz was briefly in the offing, a Sam Billings XI or suchlike. In the end, with the right assurances made and the pandemic in Australia headed finally in the right direction, not to mention millions of pounds worth of broadcasting money at stake, the 2021-22 Ashes were cleared for takeoff. Perhaps crucially, Root will also have Ben Stokes by his side. As last-minute upgrades go, that is surely one of the best.
As England Test captain, off the field is where you increasingly earn your paycheck while your legacy is still determined by events on it. Root has been a popular, thoughtful and honest captain at a time when the global game has been navigating decidedly soupy skies. His players like and respect him hugely, while he doesn’t quite attract the fawning and enjoy the free rein of Eoin Morgan. On paper he is England’s most successful in the Test format, in terms of number of wins, despite a tendency on occasion to tactical naivety, resulting in a few chastening losses.
If Root helms an Ashes victory overseas, a big if, then his legacy as a captain will begin to nudge towards his greatness as a batter. The journey begins here. Welcome to Flight Ashes 2021-22. Fasten your seatbelts.