Any mention of Joe Root invariably, and quite unfairly, draws up comparisons with Steven Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, the other members of the group which, most pundits agree, represents the cream of the batting talent over the last 10 years. The comparisons are, invariably again, not flattering towards Root - "very good player, but not quite in the league of the other three."
In the process, we might tend to forget how good Root actually is: 8249 runs in 99 Tests at an average of 49.39 aren't numbers to be taken lightly. They are a tad below those of Smith, Kohli and Williamson, but by any other yardstick, they are terrific. Not many batsmen from England have achieved the longevity and success that Root has.
Among the seven England batsmen who have topped 8000 runs, Root's average is the highest; Geoff Boycott's 47.72 is second. Even with a 5000-run cut-off, only five batsmen have a higher average, and the most recent of those batsmen, Ken Barrington, retired in 1968. (The other four are Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, and Denis Compton.)
That means Root is easily one of England's best batsmen in the last 50 years. Among those who scored 4000 or more runs since January 1970 - 23 batsmen make this list - only one, Boycott, has a higher average. And among the England players who have played 100-plus Tests, none had scored as many runs after 99 matches as Root has; the next-best is Kevin Pietersen's 7887. Root belongs in the pantheon of all-time great England batsmen, and he will further consolidate that position by the time he is finished with Test cricket.
Root's phenomenal series in Sri Lanka last month, which fetched him 426 runs in four innings, lifted his average in Asia by more than eight runs - from an already-impressive 46.07 to 54.13. His 1624 runs is next only to Alastair Cook's 2710 for England batsmen in Asia, while David Gower (1138 runs at 56.90) is the only England batsman to score 1000-plus runs in Asia at a higher average.
In the series in Sri Lanka, Root scored 426 out of the 960 runs scored by all the England batsmen; the percentage of 44.4 is the fifth-highest for any batsman in a series of two or more Tests. The feature of his batting in the series was his excellence against spin: he scored 381 of his 426 runs against them and was dismissed just twice, for an average of 190.5 and a strike rate of 69.9; all the other England batsmen collectively scored 451 runs against Sri Lanka's spinners and were dismissed 20 times - average 22.55, strike rate 45.4.
In fact, Root scored 200 runs off Lasith Embuldeniya, Sri Lanka's premier spinner in the series, without being dismissed, which was only the second instance in the last 20 years of a batsman scoring 200-plus runs off a bowler in a series without being dismissed. The first was Rahul Dravid against Stuart MacGill in the 2003-04 series in Australia.
Before this series, Root averaged 44.52 against spin in Asia; his stunning returns in Sri Lanka have boosted that average to 57.21. He is one of only nine batsmen to score 1000-plus runs against spin in Asia since the start of 2002, and his average is second to Jacques Kallis' 59.10, among these nine.
Piling on the fifties
Root has made 68 scores of 50 or more, the most by any batsman after 99 Tests. Sunil Gavaskar had 66 such scores at the same stage in his career, which is the next best. Brian Lara had 64, Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid had 63 each, and Kallis had 62. In terms of innings per hundred, Root's rate of 2.66 is fifth, ahead of such luminaries like Kallis, Lara, Kumar Sangakkara and Ricky Ponting.
Even when compared with his contemporaries, Root is up there in terms of getting half-centuries frequently: among the 14 batsmen with 4000-plus runs since his debut, Root's rate of 2.7 innings per 50-plus score is next only to Smith and Williamson (2.3), and marginally better than Kohli (2.9).
Scoring fifties has never been an issue for Root; his problem has always been converting those starts into hundreds. While no batsman has made more 50-plus after 99 Tests, 29 have made more centuries than Root's 19. Gavaskar had two fewer 50-plus innings after 99 Tests, but he had piled up 30 hundreds, 11 more than Root's tally.
Among the seven elite batsmen with 5000 or more runs since his debut, Root is at No. 3 in terms of frequency of going past 50, but in terms of the ratio of centuries to fifties, his ratio of 0.39 is poor, especially when compared to the top names in this list: Kohli has an incredible ratio of 1.39 (25 hundreds, 18 fifties), while for Smith and Williamson the ratios are 0.93 and 0.78.
The importance of Root's hundreds to England's cause is further gleaned from the fact that England have never lost a Test when he has scored a century: in those 19 matches, England have won 15 and drawn four. In matches when he has scored merely a half-century and not a hundred, England have won 18, lost 18, and drawn seven.
Troubles at home, but solid abroad
Apart from the recent series against Sri Lanka, the last three years have been tough for Root - he has averaged only 44.08 in this period in 35 Tests. This prolonged lean run has seen him fall to the periphery in discussions around the best current batsmen, especially because the other three protagonists in this debate have had wonderful runs: Williamson averages 67.89 in this period, Smith 55.92 and Kohli 52.56. That Root has still scored 639 more Test runs than any other batsman during this period shows just how skewed the Test schedules have been in this period.
Even in these three lean years, Root's stats away from home are terrific: he averages 53.90, with five centuries in 17 Tests (before the Sri Lanka series, he averaged 46.11 in 15 matches). At home, though, the numbers have fallen away drastically: in 18 Tests he has scored one century, and the average is 20 fewer than his away average. He has played the same number of innings home and away during this period - 32 each - but has scored 653 more runs in away games. These numbers contrast sharply with his home form before 2018: in 35 home Tests from 2013 to 2017, he scored 10 hundreds and averaged 59.46.
Consequently, compared to the other members of the Fab Four, it is in the home stats component that Root suffers in a big way. His average of 50.55 is about 15 to 18 fewer than the home averages of Williamson, Smith and Kohli. In away Tests (including those in neutral venues), Root's average of 48.16 is better than those of Williamson and Kohli.
In fact, Root has scored 500-plus runs at 50-plus averages in four continents - Asia, Africa, Americas (the Caribbean) and Europe (England). Only two other batsmen - Kallis and Barrington - have achieved this feat in Test history.
Scoring them young
Just past his 30th birthday, which fell on December 30 last year, Root has already racked up 8249 Test runs. Only Cook and Tendulkar have higher aggregates before their 31st birthday.
Given the amount of Test cricket England play and Root's general fitness - it has taken him only a little over eight years to play 100 Tests, and he has missed just two Tests since his debut - there is a fair chance that he will have a shot at Tendulkar's Test aggregate of 15,921. It will help, obviously, if he can get over his recent slump in home Tests.