May 28, 2014

A crossroads for Joe Root

Long hailed for his extraordinary talent, Root is still to quite make good. And England can't afford to give him the time they gave a young Ian Bell to blossom

Joe Root: neither rookie nor veteran © PA Photos

To slip briefly into ECB-speak, England are engaged in a programme of reconnection at the moment, so after a sparse crowd in Durham sat in gloom, both meteorological and metaphysical, and watched them get bowled out for 99, there was some talking to be done. Eoin Morgan continues to be impressively forthright. Lent weight by his position as England's best white-ball batsman, he is flinty and tough. There is something unforgiving about Morgan, a natural severity that separates leaders from followers.

The other face to front the media was a gentler one, that of Joe Root, who nonetheless sang the requisite song of contrition: "We don't want fans turning up for games and seeing a performance like that. It's quite embarrassing."

It was slightly odd to see Root adding to the England word-cloud (and sure enough "engaged" and "exciting" made their now-inevitable appearances there) but shorn of Alastair Cook by a groin twang; Stuart Broad, who is resting various injuries; Ian Bell, who did it last time; and Jimmy Anderson, rarely the chirpiest of souls in victory let alone a defeat brought about by poor batting, Root, at 23, had a measure of seniority.

As Derek Pringle noted in the Daily Telegraph, with 29 ODI caps, Root is "neither rookie nor veteran", and his batting seems to occupy the same uncertain no-man's land. An authoritative 45 at The Oval was followed with a callow dismissal in Durham, bowled neck and crop by Lasith Malinga's skittering outswinger.

From his earliest days in the England system Root has been something of a poster boy, yet it's only England themselves who seem entirely convinced by him. In this, he echoes Bell, who was quietly nursed through the early part of his international career. Bell's gifts have always been manifest, but it took a while for him to become the hardened, rounded batsman he is now, to produce unequivocal performances when no one else in the side was doing so. Bell was cosseted to a degree by the excellence of the team around him, a luxury that Root looks unlikely to enjoy in the near future.

Bell was baby-faced, too, and was stuck for a while with the pejorative "Sherminator" nickname, courtesy Shane Warne (as with many of the best barbs, there was an element of truth to it) and he went through a period where he lost sight of who and what he was as a player, trying to "impose himself" at the crease as a way of ridding himself of an unwanted image. Ultimately he did that in the only way it's really possible to do: by scoring runs when they are needed.

Bell could probably offer Root some good counsel. There is toughness in him, for sure: it's not so long ago that he made a tremendous one-day hundred with a badly broken thumb. He has coped with being ping-ponged around England's order, and it's anyone's guess where he'll bat come the first Test of the summer.

He has maintained an equanimity while it has happened, and there is much to admire in his strokeplay. It's perhaps unfair to compare his average of 36 after 29 Test innings to Bell's, which was 47 at a similar point, as 18 of Root's innings have been against an of-late lethal Australian attack. But Root does seem to be at something of a crossroads. If he cannot kick on against Sri Lanka and India at home, then it would be fair to ask some serious questions about him.

It's hard to articulate exactly what it is about his batting that leaves room for so much doubt. Perhaps it's just a contrary reaction to be being told how good he is all of the time. There comes a moment, though, when potential must harden into achievement, when destiny must make itself clear, when words are not enough. With England in flux, Root won't get the shelter that harboured the young Bell. All of a sudden he is no longer the new boy, and now that he's speaking for the team he will have to start producing for it too.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

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