Root gets big year off to best-possible start

Root gets big year off to best-possible start

Evening all. This morning, England’s test cricketers wrapped up a comfortable and comprehensive 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka with a 6-wicket victory in the final test in Galle. For skipper Joe Root – who came away with a fully-deserved Man of the Series award – it was the ideal way to begin what will likely be a career-defining year.

The two-test series was the first installment of a mammoth workload facing England’s elite cricketers this year. In total, they are scheduled to play a minimum of 17 tests in 2021, a number that could go up if they qualify for the inaugural World Test Championship final at Lord’s in June.

To start with, Root and co barely have time to get over their hangovers in Sri Lanka before flying north to start a four-test series against India on February 6. This is not an easy task at the best of times – the last time the Three Lions toured India, back in 2016, they were smashed 4-0.

Things could well be even trickier this time around. Just a few weeks ago India claimed one of the most thrilling and remarkable test series victories in living memory in Australia, despite the absence of captain and talisman Virat Kohli (the superstar batsman was at home to be present for the birth of his daughter). The world’s top-ranked test team will be flying and, having lost 4-1 in England in 2018, Kohli’s men will be eager to exact revenge.

England will then travel home for a packed summer schedule that includes test series’ against New Zealand and India (again). In December, Root then faces the minor task of leading his team in an Ashes series Down Under. The Yorshireman’s legacy as England captain will, in all likelihood, be defined by his results in Australia. Having already lost the urn in embarrassing fashion in Australia in 2018, he failed to win it back on home soil the following year. He is unlikely to be given the chance to lose four successive Ashes series as captain.

Against that backdrop, then, the series in Sri Lanka could not have gone any better for England’s skipper. While his captaincy and leadership were strong, his personal contributions with the bat were immense. Generally comfortable against subcontinental spin, the 30-year-old truly shone this time around, notching an incredible 426 runs – three times more than any of this teammates – at an average of more than 106. That two of his four innings’ ended in run out is testimony to the fact that the Sri Lankans seemed simply clueless as to how to get rid of him. His sublime 228 in the first innings of the first test laid the platform for England’s domination. It set the tone for the rest of the series and served as a gentle reminder to the cricket world that Root remains one of the world’s best batsmen.

That reminder was, perhaps, a little overdue. Since taking over from Alistair Cook as captain in February 2017, Root has failed to produce the same scintillating performances that earned him plaudits as one of England’s finest ever cricketers during his breakthrough years in the team. Having scored three test centuries every calendar year between 2014-2016, for example, he has since scored only two every year since. In the 2019 Ashes series, he averaged only 32 and had a high score of 77 from five matches. Aside from the inevitable noise that comes with a cricket captain failing to perform, his sub-par returns with the bat don’t make his job any easier: as the team’s best player, Root’s strongest weapon for winning test matches for England is himself.

It is probably a bit too simplistic to say that the pressures of captaincy were weighing down on him, but there is a clear “before” and “after” correlation nevertheless. So Root’s performances in Sri Lanka, which take him back into the top five world test batting rankings, will provide huge relief to the selectors, the fans, the team and of course the player himself. Having well and truly earned his place in the team for the next few series, he can now focus on fine-tuning his leadership and tactical skills for the challenges ahead.

The Sri Lanka series provided other positives for England. For starters, they whitewashed their hosts despite the absence of regular starters like Jofra Archer, Rory Burns and Ben Stokes. With so much cricket on the horizon, the selectors will be reassured by the strength and depth of their options.

In the batting department, Jos Buttler’s resurgence in the test format continued with 131 runs at 65, including a series-clinching 55 not out in the second test. With his glovework improving all the time, he is now one of the first names on the teamsheet and looks like a captain in waiting. Jonny Bairstow, meanwhile, made the most of his recall into the side with 139 runs – second only to Root – at 45. He will be disappointed to be traveling home rather than to India tonight but he should feature again come the summer.

Regarding the spinners, it remains all to play for. Both Jack Leach and Dom Bess performed well without excelling, taking 10 wickets at 35 and 12 wickets at 21 respectively. With Moeen Ali set to be recalled against India, it will be fascinating to see which of that trio can emerge as England’s primary spin option over the next 12 months.

In the wake of victory in the second test, Root urged his team not to “stand still” in search of further improvement ahead of the Ashes. If his 2021 batting average remains stationary by the time he lands in Australia, however, England will be in pretty good shape.

Right, I think I’ll leave it there for today. Have a good start to the week all and I’ll be back here on Wednesday.

—What do you think about England’s Ashes chances this year? Let me know in the comments section below!—