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Joe Root's 100th Test: Standing on the shoulders of giants, his best yet to come

The England Test captain, just past 30, seems to have skittered into the upper echelons without breaking sweat

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Joe Root stands squarely on the shoulders of giants, with perhaps the peak years of his career still in front of him  •  Getty Images

Joe Root stands squarely on the shoulders of giants, with perhaps the peak years of his career still in front of him  •  Getty Images

Three names. Three titans of England cricket. All toppled in the space of a single stupendous innings.
First went Geoffrey Boycott (8114 Test runs), deftly vaulted with a cut in front of square. Next, it was Kevin Pietersen (8181), nailed on the sweep, into the shins of short leg and away for the deal-sealing single. And 50 runs later still, David Gower (8231) was swept away too, as Lasith Embuldeniya was picked up from outside off with as much ceremony as a bottle of milk from the doorstep.
And now, on the eve of his 100th Test and fresh from a definitive haul of 426 runs in two Tests against Sri Lanka, here Joe Root stands - squarely on the shoulders of giants with a total of 8249 runs to his name. With perhaps the clearest view imaginable of the peak years of his career still stretching out in front of him.
It hardly required a surge through the records for confirmation, but it is unequivocal now. Root's place among the elite of English cricket - English sport, even - is a given. It won't be long before he has overhauled two more England giants in Alec Stewart (8463) and Graham Gooch (8900), both of whom were past their 40th birthdays by the time their gargantuan careers were done, with bodies of work as weighty as the trademark strokes that had contributed to them.
Root, by contrast, is barely a month into his 30s and seems to have skittered into the upper echelons without breaking sweat - perhaps not quite as literally as the one Englishman whose feats lie beyond his immediate grasp, but unlike the famously anti-perspirant Alastair Cook (12,472), Root has rarely made the arduous business of run-scoring look quite such a life-and-death struggle.
Quite the opposite in fact. Other players of his standing have had to factor some very human failings into their genius. Gower's grace came with a self-destructive caveat, while KP's ego was his vice as much as his virtue, but Root's career to date has been remarkable for its lack of obvious grit in the oyster.
In Sri Lanka, for instance, the range and poise of his sweep shots seemed to catch a fair few onlookers unawares, as did their companion trait, his effortless reading of length, which enabled him to play back with confidence to the spinners. And yet, by the time these methods had been drummed into the narrative over the course of 1000 minutes of crease occupation, it was as if Root had finally been conferred a signature shot to rival Ponting's pull or Tendulkar's high-elbowed drive.
And not unlike Tendulkar, a similarly fresh-faced boy wonder in his heyday, Root's hypnotic thrum of excellence has inured him to the wild highs and swirling lows that many great batsmen have had to endure. He may never play an innings quite as startling as Ben Stokes at Headingley, for instance, but then again, he may never need to. A nudge through midwicket here, a steer down to third man there… when Root, as the cliché goes, is able to put 10, 20, 30 runs on the board before anyone's really noticed, he's drawing the jeopardy in a wholly different style.
But now, you sense, there's a stark choice to be made - and it surely is a choice, because the extent of Root's talent doesn't really leave his long-term returns to chance. Does he see his exalted status among England batsmen as a summit in itself, or is it a base camp in his bid to tackle the game's most rarefied heights?
For several years now, Root has been readily bracketed among world cricket's contemporary "Fab Four", alongside Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Kane Williamson. But, as his near-contemporary, Andy Murray, can attest from his own attempts to keep pace with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it is one thing to be considered as the best that your country has ever produced, it's another thing entirely to make the step up to all-time legendary status.
Murray bust a gut to bridge the gap and found his best endeavours weren't enough, and Root too has watched the pack pull away in the past few seasons. He, however, has the game, and the time, and the fitness levels too (he's never yet missed a Test through injury) to make a proper play for top billing if his mind is fully on the task - and perhaps for the first time since inheriting the Test captaincy at the end of his rookie phase in 2016, he has a team situation in which Test cricket can be close to an unwavering focus.
For if ever there were mitigating circumstances for a slackening in Test-match standards, then Root can claim to have lived them. When Cook handed him the reins at the end of the 2016-17 tour of India, England were deep into their transition of priorities from red-ball to white, with Root himself - as England's 50-over safety valve - utterly integral to the process.
He arrived on the bridge with Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan already setting the agenda - England had not long since reached the final of the World T20, where Root would surely have been Player of the Final and Tournament too, had it not been for Carlos Brathwaite's intervention in Kolkata. And with all roads hurtling towards the 2019 World Cup final at Lord's, his role in the Test team became more akin to a rally co-driver than the actual bloke behind the wheel. Find a route, any route, and get us there before the batting runs out.
And sure enough, his returns hit a sharp bend or two on the way. At the end of his maiden summer as Test captain in 2017, Root was averaging a world-class 53.76 from 60 Tests. That figure has now dipped to 49.39 from 99. For his first five years as an England cricketer, he had never gone more than two series in a row without ending a campaign with an average in the high 50s: for seven consecutive series from the spring of 2018 through to the end of the 2019 Ashes, that figure didn't emerge from the 30s.
Built into that downturn, however, was the suggestion that Root never actually fell out of form in the conventional sense. Instead, he began to attract criticism for his failure to kick on from typically solid starts - having previously converted a healthy one in three of his fifties to hundreds, up to and including his career-best 254 against Pakistan in July 2016, that ratio drifted out to one in eight (or three hundreds from 24 fifties) over the course of the next 24 months.
And reductive though it may be, that sense of a job half-done had its origins in the same cycle of matches that England are about to embark upon again, which means there's no time quite like the present for Root to lay down some house rules and reframe the terms of the debate.
In consecutive winters between November 2016 and January 2018, England played ten Tests in India and Australia, much as they are due to do now, and were trounced by a combined 8-0 scoreline. Root himself scored a century in the first of this run of games - a draw in Nagpur - but could only manage an average of one fifty per match thereafter (ten in 19 innings all told), his intermittent resistances blipping off England's scorecards like faint proof that his team still had a pulse.
It is an indictment of his lack of support that he still topped England's averages for both series - 491 at 49.10 in India, 378 at 47.25 in Australia - and, taken in isolation, his resolve was admirable. Never more so than in the New Year's Test in Sydney when, under the searing summer sun, he batted himself to a standstill: 141 runs for once out in the match, before retiring with sunstroke on the futile final day of the series.
But the optics of that final day were revealing too. As Root lay exhausted in the dressing room, with none of his team-mates being cruel enough to wake him, Australia cavorted with the urn on their infamous four-fingered salute of a podium. And leading the dance, with a monstrous haul of 687 runs at 137.40, was Root's then-opposite number Smith, the recipient of the Compton-Miller Medal that Root himself had claimed on home soil two-and-a-half years earlier.
Twelve months prior to Smith's star turn, Kohli too had left Root in his wake with 655 runs at 109.16 in India's own 4-0 thrashing, including, in Mumbai, the third of what would prove to be a remarkable run of six double-hundreds in 18 months. And, as if to prove that home conditions weren't a prerequisite for either man's success, both have since gone on to outshine Root on consecutive England tours: 593 runs for Kohli in 2018, and an eye-watering 774 for Smith in 2019.
Such are the standards that Root must set himself if he is to reclaim his place among the best batsmen of his generation. His Galle double-whammy was an indisputably strong start, but tellingly it was also the first time he had scored two hundreds in a series since the aforementioned 2015 Ashes.
But, perhaps more importantly, he's now feeling the natural uplift of being captain of a winning team. Since Chris Silverwood took over as head coach at the end of 2019, a sense of decorum has been restored to their batting. England have passed 400 in six of their past 13 first innings, and picked off eight victories, having not managed the milestone once in the preceding two years and 23 attempts. And what's more, having been forced to grow into his role - and not always comfortably - Root is discovering, not unlike his lesser-mentioned counterpart Williamson, that unshakeable decency engenders loyalty, not least from the most important man in his ranks, Stokes, whose support has been unstinting even in the team's most wayward days.
That, in turn, is beginning to foster a formidable team spirit, even in the adversity of lockdown. In the wake of the Sri Lanka win, England's media manager Danny Reuben posted on Instagram a scene of England's dressing-room celebrations, or rather their quiet contemplations, as the squad lay back in their seats to listen to the coach debrief them on a job well done.
It showed something else too. A trick of the light, on the one hand, but a glimpse, maybe, of a new, more battle-hardened Root Mk 2 - the imp, imperious, if you will. His cheekbones were straining against a taut, conditioned face, giving the look of a man who had thrived in some of the most oppressive batting conditions imaginable, on and off the field, and was already hungry for more.
For it's quite something to be a World Cup winner, and a Test caps centurion, and (before long, surely) the England captain with the most Test victories to his name too, and yet give off the impression that your greatest challenge is still to come.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket