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Comment

Where does Joe Root rank among England's greatest batters?

He's up there with the likes of Hutton, May, Gooch and Cook. Like his team-mates seem to think, might he be the greatest of them all?

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
07-Jun-2022
Joe Root brings out the picture-perfect cover drive, England vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 1, Lord's, June 2, 2022

Joe Root has the ability to score without being noticed and to change the tempo of a match while doing so  •  PA Images via Getty Images

These past four days the United Kingdom has celebrated the 70-year reign of Her Majesty the Queen with gusto. There have been numerous parties in her name since she ascended to the throne in the cold February of 1952, but this platinum jubilee has been the mother and father of them all. Happily, yesterday's finale coincided with England's thrilling Test match victory at Lord's. It had not been 70 years since England last won but it felt a bit like it - a long ten months let's say.
In the summer of 1952, England played four Test matches against India, winning the first three comprehensively and watching the rain fall for much of the fourth. At the top of the batting order was Len Hutton and at three, four and five in the first two matches were Peter May, Denis Compton and Tom Graveney, each of them wizards in their way. Hutton was technically close to perfect and, typically of Yorkshiremen, resilient. Bowlers used to say that they felt any ball bowled to May could have been hit for four; the only other batter I've heard that said of was Viv Richards. Compton had hints of genius in him, created by quicksilver feet, an eager eye, and the most splendid expression. Graveney was elegant beyong imagination and blessed with extraordinary powers of concentration. These were wonderful batters during something of a golden age for English cricket, and the legend of each lives on in the hearts of those for whom cricket is so much more than just a game.
None of them, however, were better than Joe Root. The current players like to refer to Root as the best English batter of all time. I don't know about that, and nor, really, do the players, but they are hugely proud of him. Root is a man of great dignity and no little modesty. He would rather they didn't fuss but, then again, it is a fine thing to be so appreciated by your peers.
Batting is a craft that has evolved over a couple of centuries. Film of WG Grace in the nets does not tell us much, other than how different the game was back then. The same can be said about grainy footage of Jack Hobbs, though 197 hundreds must count for something. Photographs at the MCG of Walter Hammond and Bill Ponsford remind us that many of the pitches of the day were barely identifiable from the outfields and therefore the balance between bat and ball was far less weighted in favour of batters than it is today. In 1937, the lbw law changed so that bowlers could trap a batter in front by pitching the ball outside off stump and bringing it back into his pads. Previously the ball had to pitch on the stumps and be going on to hit them, which takes some bowling.
Of course, batting is a subjective skill and has changed considerably even in the relatively short time that I have been involved with the game. On uncovered pitches and before the introduction of helmets, the tendency was to play back. This allowed more time to react to the uncertain bounce of the ball and more time to respond to its speed. The clarion call on uncovered pitches was for "soft hands", meaning a loose grip and a gentle method of letting the ball come to you before dropping it safely at your feet. If you study footage of Compton against Keith Miller, for example, or of the Australians being bowled out by Jim Laker at Old Trafford in 1956, you will see them play back almost exclusively. Just occasionally a player emerged to buck the trend and foremost among those was Graveney, who was best known for his cover drive but became much admired for his ability to hook and pull off the front foot.
Root appears to have all these skills and more. He is, as they say these days, a 360-degree player, and more remarkably in an age when batters come so hard at the ball, he is that player off both feet. Picking a signature shot is difficult, though the cut might be the one. He has the ability to score without being noticed and to change the tempo of a match while doing so. The pitch at Lord's was tricky, offering swing and seam to the bowlers and suggestions of uneven bounce and pace. Footwork was crucial, as proven by the fall of those who stayed trapped on the crease, as was Root's ability to play the ball late enough to flow with its movement in his strokes or watch it fly by.
For much of the first act in this Root exhibition, he simply hung around at the other end while Ben Stokes went about justifying his pre-match rhetoric. Of the 90 runs they added together the new captain made 54 - a dazzling array of the ridiculous and sublime - and the old one 30-odd. When Stokes went, the second act began as Root upped the ante in a manner that took courage and all of his skill. Far from dropping anchor to ensure that one wicket didn't bring two, he began to look for scoring opportunities with an increased sense of urgency and purpose. This caught the New Zealand players off guard and whisked away their potential for momentum. Root knew that the sunlit Saturday evening - play had been extended to 7pm after morning rain and a generally slow over rate - with the pitch drying, the ball soft, and the opponents wilting, was England's moment. All the best players can sense this and most move in for the kill.
When stumps were drawn that evening, England needed just 61. Ben Foakes had become to Root what Root had been to Stokes. When cricketers use the phrase "bat in partnerships" this is exactly what they mean. In that final hour's play on Saturday, Foakes made 9 of the 57 he and Root put on together in 15 overs: runs that negated the likelihood of New Zealand dragging the game to the point at which they could use a second new ball on the fourth morning and, to some degree at least, allowed the England dressing room to sleep easy.
For sure, England got lucky when Colin de Grandhomme overstepped the popping crease by less than a centimetre to give Stokes a reprieve early in his innings, but it is said, better to be lucky than good. Or just be Joe Root.
As it was, New Zealand bowled poorly on the fourth morning but Root deserves the credit for that. He simply outplayed them. The innings was a masterpiece, one of which any player, from any age, would have been proud. He had rescued the Stokes-McCullum dream start from ignominy, and gave the country a wonderful sidebar across a weekend in which joy and celebration were the national mood.
How good is he? Well, the line of exceptional English batting began with Grace and moved through such players as Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, Hammond, Hutton, Compton and May, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Ken Barrington, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch (latterly), David Gower, Graham Thorpe, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook. Root is as good as any of them and better than most. You could make a shortlist of five, I reckon, but I'll leave that to you. Suffice to say that the lad from Sheffield with 10,015 Test match runs to his name is amongst them and that no one is happier about that than his successor as captain.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator