Joe Root says he cannot yet commit to captaining England in Australia this winter, or taking part in the series at all, even though he is "desperate" to carry his formidable run of form into the Ashes, and so improve his record in one of the few countries where he has yet to score a Test century.
Root, 30, has been named as the cinch PCA Men's Player of the Year after a stellar 2021 in which he has scored six of his team's seven centuries in 12 Tests, including four scores of 180-plus. With a total of 1455 runs at 66.13 for the calendar year so far, he still has a realistic chance to overhaul Mohammad Yousuf's record haul of 1788 runs, set back in 2006.
However, with one Test postponement already this year, following India's withdrawal from last month's series decider at Old Trafford, the prospect remains that Root and England will not play another Test in 2021, as negotiations continue between the ECB and Cricket Australia over the team's impending quarantine arrangements.
Although the ECB is understood to have received an updated brief from CA with "better than expected" guidelines - including an ability to train and move freely within their hotel during their 14-day quarantine period and some flexibility thereafter - the details have yet to be shared with the players. Their confidence in the arrangements is unlikely to have been improved by the overnight news that Tasmania's Sheffield Shield fixture against Queensland has been postponed indefinitely after four new Covid cases were reported in the state. Brisbane is due to host the opening Ashes Test on December 8.
"We are still waiting for some information," Root said. "Hopefully that will be with us soon. It's a little bit frustrating but it's where we are at. It's so hard to know until we find out what the conditions are going to be like. Hopefully it'll be coming shortly and we can start moving forward."
Root has toured Australia twice in his career, as a rookie in 2013-14 during England's ill-fated 5-0 whitewash, and again as captain four years later, when he made five half-centuries in as many Tests but a highest score of 83 in the final Test at Sydney, as Australia wrapped up another comprehensive 4-0 win.
Given England's stated aim at the start of the year, of winning back the Ashes in Australia, and Root's own decision to stay on as captain after the 2-2 home draw in 2019, his conflict is palpable ahead of a series that ought to be a career-defining moment. However, with the squad determined to present a united front, particularly given the likely restrictions on families joining the tour, Root insists it's hard to make a "definite decision" on whether he will be able to lead the tour.
"It's really important everyone makes a decision that they're comfortable with," Root said. "There's so many different factors that fall into it, so we just have to be patient, and wait until we know what's happening and then make a decision on the back of that.
"I'm very hopeful, and think I speak on behalf of everyone that Ashes cricket - an away tour to Australia - is one of those things that you're just desperate to be on," he added. "The position I'm at in my career, it could be the last opportunity I get to go, so of course it's something you're desperate to do, to hopefully make history over there and be part of something very special. Until we have information it's very difficult to know where everything sits."
Although Root's average in Australia is creditable by most players' standards - 38.00 from nine matches - it is still his lowest in any Test-hosting country bar Bangladesh, where he has played just twice, while the UAE is the only other country where he hasn't made one of his 23 Test hundreds. Given his form this year, which has taken him back to the top of the ICC batting rankings, he knows he may never get a better chance to set the record straight.
"I'm very aware of [my record in Australia], and it's something that I desperately want to put right," Root said. "As a senior batter in the side, you want to be the one scoring the runs, you want to be the one making those big hundreds. I have done that this year so far. But it's the one place where I feel like I have underperformed, and I've not got the best out of myself. So it's a great driver for me to go and do it this this time round. So hopefully that can be the case.
"I certainly feel I'm playing some of the best cricket I've played. I'm playing quite nicely, and it's been one of those years you need to make the most of. I feel I've got good rhythm in the way that I'm moving and good confidence at the crease. More than anything you are desperate to keep it going, keep that hunger, keep that drive to make those big scores and contributions."
Regardless of whether the tour goes ahead or not, England's preparations for the Ashes have already been severely hampered by the ongoing uncertainty - including the likelihood that the Perth Test, currently due to start on January 14, will be have to be relocated given that Western Australia's border is unlikely to be reopened until February at the earliest.
"You look at the last two years, nothing's really been normal, in terms of planning for anything," Root said. "You just want to make the best of everything you can. From our point of view, everything we've done has been about being ready for when we are due to get to Australia, making sure that we're as ready as we can be, that we are organised and clear on what we need to do.
"How we're approaching it, from a mental point of view more than anything at the minute, is getting your head around the challenges that a tour like that poses," he added. "Regardless of what decision they finally make, everyone has to have at the forefront of their thinking, 'what do I need to do to perform well?', whether that's with bat, ball, or collectively, as a group.
"We've tried to ready the guys, and have conversations leading into this part of going away, so that they have an idea of what to face when we get there. As much as anything, we've tried to keep it as close to how you'd want to prepare for any tour, but in particular an Ashes tour of Australia."
Despite England's own recent struggles - which include a 1-0 series loss to New Zealand, as well as trailing 2-1 against India in a series that may yet be concluded next year - Root still has faith that England can compete against an Australia team in transition, having watched India emerge victorious in their own tour last year.
"India have proven [they are beatable]," Root said. "You look at their side in the last Test match in Brisbane, it was far from the side that played against us this summer, it wasn't their first-choice team, without their captain and some very senior players, so they've shown the world that you can go to Australia and we'll certainly take a lot of confidence from that. We know that when we play like we did at Headingley for example, we'll beat most sides in the world regardless of where we're at."
Joe Root was speaking following the 52nd cinch PCA Awards, the biggest awards ceremony in English cricket