Joe Root: The Pressing Issues Facing England’s New Captain

From Last Word on Cricket, Shamir Patel

As expected, Joe Root has been announced as England’s Test captain to replace Alastair Cook.

He becomes the 80th man to captain England and the Yorkshire tyro will take on a team which, though brimming with talent, lost eight Tests in 2016, equalling their record number of losses in a calendar year.

With a home series against South Africa followed by the Ashes down under in the winter, 2017 offers a stern examination of Root’s captaincy credentials.

He has plenty on his to-do list if he is to pick up a team which has just been thrashed in India. Here are the pressing issues he must address if he is to hit the ground running:

A team of all-rounders or an all-round team

At times in India, England seemed to be playing with two specialist opening batsman, a wicketkeeper and eight all-rounders. It showed a muddled mindset and a desire to cover all bases.

England are blessed with supremely talented all-rounders in the shape of Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali. Deciding whether to try and fit them all in the team or which ones get the cut is a big headache for a rookie captain. But what a headache to have.

When Virat Kohli took charge of the Indian Test team he had a strong view on the composition he wanted. Will Root have a similarly bold vision or will he be happy to tinker around at the edges?

Fifties don’t win matches

Joe Root is the most talented English batsman of his generation and has now joined the other members of the ‘Fab Four’ in captaining their national teams. However, amongst those four leading lights, Root has the worst 50 to 100 conversion rate, having only made 11 centuries despite passing 50 on 38 occasions. By contrast, Kane Williamson has passed fifty 40 times and made 15 hundreds, Steve Smith 17 centuries from 37 50+ scores, and Kohli leads the way with more tons (15) than fifties (14)*.

Fifties don’t win Test matches as Root himself proved in India when he passed 50 in every Test but only turned one of those knocks into a hundred. Root will have to eradicate the loose shots he is prone to playing when set and turn half-centuries into hundreds and hundreds into big scores.

Kohli and Smith have both used the extra responsibility of captaincy to spur their batting to greater heights and Root will be hopeful of following their example.

* Not including the ongoing Test between India and Bangladesh

Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali

Stokes is the sort of character and talent that you can build a world-beating team around. But first, he needs consistency within the team and know his role within that side. He was, at times, severely under-bowled in India and has also batted at every position from four downwards in his 32 Tests.

One of the first orders of the day for Root should be to embed Stokes into one position and make him the heartbeat of the team, similarly to Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff in years gone by.

The future is less clear-cut for Ali. No-one can doubt his talent with bat in hand but while his batting is improving at the highest level – he scored 1000 runs and made four 100s in 2016 – his bowling has been found out. Ostensibly in the team as first-choice spinner, his wickets are coming at an ever-increasing cost, while he offers very little for his skipper in terms of control.

Similarly to Stokes, Ali has suffered from a lack of clarity on his role within the team – he has batted at every position from one to nine. Identifying exactly what he wants from these two talents must be high on Root’s to-do list.

Attack the best form of defence?

Alastair Cook has never been a particularly natural or instinctive captain. He preferred to depend on plans and could often look lost and passive when things weren’t going his way.

There was noticeable friction between his more cautious approach and Trevor Bayliss’ calls for a more adventurous mindset. Expect there to be no such issue under a Root captaincy and plenty of fireworks come the Ashes in the winter.

This though has its downsides, as England’s inability to hunker down and play defensively when needed in Bangladesh and India demonstrated clearly. Root and Bayliss will have to instil within the team a mindset that finds the right balance of being attacking without being reckless, and positive without being headless.

All that jazz

Root comes to the English captaincy with very little previous experience. And his first taste of county captaincy started inauspiciously with Yorkshire losing to Middlesex who memorably chased down 472 at Lord’s.

The England captain also has to shoulder the burden of extensive media and sponsor commitments. With Root being one of England’s most important players across all formats, not to mention with a baby boy at home, balancing his energies and not losing his youthful exuberance and passion will be key to any success going forward.

A clean break from the past

Joe Root will also have a decision to make, alongside Bayliss, on the future of Alastair Cook. At 32, England’s record run-scorer should be a shoo-in to keep his place at the top of the batting order for a few years to come.

However, with Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed enjoying promising debut series in India, Root and Bayliss may decide to look to the future and choose both of them ahead of Cook. They would be wrong to do so but it would be a bold statement of intent from the new man in charge.

Further down the line, there will also be the tough task of phasing out of the team two of England’s finest ever bowlers in James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

There is much work ahead for Root and it will no doubt be a bumpy ride but he has the capacity, tenacity and ability to be a highly successful England captain.