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News Analysis

Joe Root, the captain who wasn't enough

Whether in high achievement or failure while daring greatly, he deserves massive credit for leading England during the hardest of times

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Joe Root goes out with his bat held high  •  Getty Images

Joe Root goes out with his bat held high  •  Getty Images

It is one of the great tropes of modern American literature that a central protagonist often finds their day-to-day struggles foregrounded against the wider societal malaise. Whatever minor acts of heroism and failure these characters are responsible for, they are picayune concerns when compared to the bigger picture, the state-of-the-nation handwringing. Never mind the plot details, what does it all say about us?
For much of the last five years, it has felt like this was Joe Root's lot as England Test captain. If his one compelling goal was an Ashes series victory that never materialised, the overarching narrative was one of a declining empire, a system fallen into disrepair. Root could shuffle up or down the batting order, publicly chide his bowlers for not going fuller, attempt to reboot, recharge and reset - but his efforts seemed always destined to be subsumed by the broader psychodrama that swirls around the English game.
He ascended to the captaincy, essentially, from a shortlist of one: in the wake of Alastair Cook stepping down, Root was the obvious candidate, the team's best batter approaching the prime of his career. He leaves with no obvious successor, still the team's best batter and - after the great Root run-glut of 2021 - still clearly in his prime. No one knows where the Test team goes from here, not least because there is currently no one left in a position of power (will the last person to leave the ECB please turn out the lights?).
Nevertheless, Root's mark on the captaincy remains a substantial one. He is both the winningest and losingest of England's Test leaders (though in an age of fewer draws, that perhaps doesn't tell us as much as it should). Having edged past Michael Vaughan's mark of 26 Test wins with victory over India at Headingley last year, a winter of discontent in Australia and the Caribbean saw him eclipse the records of Cook, for both games in charge and defeats, with remorseless inevitability.
So indelibly linked is he with the Sisyphean task of trying to haul England's Test standards back to where they were a decade ago - practically at the moment when his international career began, in fact - that Root pretty much sweeps the board for accolades: most runs as England captain, most hundred and fifties, most catches. (He is joint-eighth for wickets taken, and could perhaps have got as high as third if he stayed on for another year. Tempting.)
More significantly, only two captains in Test history have registered a higher number of losses than Root's 26: Graeme Smith, with 29 from 109 Tests (compared to Root's 64); and Stephen Fleming, with 27 from 80 (and a helluva shortfall on resources at his disposal).
It hasn't quite been a one-man show, of course, and the subplots of the Root era take in all the big names. Cook helped hold the batting together for a while, before giving way to a revolving cast of candidates as opener. Ben Stokes played the most consistent Test cricket of his career under Root's captaincy, his efforts at Headingley, in Cape Town and Colombo helping to turn base metal into gold; but he missed the 2017-18 Ashes while under investigation for affray, and was powerless to avert a repeat 4-0 scoreline in Australia this time around, having just returned from an enforced break for injury - both physical and mental.
Root's pastoral strengths as a leader were never more in evidence than when he spoke after Stokes withdrew from the Test squad on the eve of last summer's series against India. "From my point of view, I just want my friend to be okay," he said, simply. Stokes has always stuck by his mate as captain, too, saying he had little interest in the role; he seems likely to be offered it regardless, as the only man alongside Root guaranteed to be on the team sheet.
More complex was Root's relationship with his bowlers. The handling of Jofra Archer, who bowled 44 overs on debut at Lord's in 2019, and another 42 in a single innings in Mount Maunganui later that year, will forever be a black mark. Root admitted he had to learn to use Archer better, but he barely had the chance before a chronic elbow injury deprived England of his services - perhaps forever, in Tests. And if overuse was the problem with Archer, then Jack Leach became a forgotten man for long stretches of the captain-coach combination of Root and Chris Silverwood.
Then there is the dual case of England's seam-bowling totems, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, and how best to manage them (or move on entirely). Root's contributions were praised in the early days, his chivvying to bowl a fuller, more-attacking length seemingly well received; Broad, in particular, was never more menacing than the David Warner-eviscerating summer of 2019. But Root's comments about his attack dropping "a little bit short" in Adelaide this winter betrayed lingering frustrations, while suggestions that the team's attitude had improved in the Caribbean - where Anderson and Broad were conspicuous by their absence - were interpreted accordingly.
That both posted messages of support on social media shortly after Root's decision to step down again underlines how he was viewed in the dressing room, even when disgruntlement abounded. "Most Test wins as England Captain & a great human being," wrote Broad.
It also says plenty that the nickname Root was given at Yorkshire - "craptain", following a County Championship defeat at Lord's in which Middlesex chased 472 in the fourth innings - never remotely stuck with England. Times were rarely as golden as appeared possible when he scored a sun-dappled 190 in his first Test in charge, on the way to a 3-1 series win over South Africa, but there were notable successes along the way - victories in Sri Lanka (twice) and South Africa, as well as a 4-1 defeat of India in 2018, when England were fleetingly, vibrantly, greater than the sum of their parts.
Though the mantle dragged his overall batting average down significantly - from 52.80 without the captaincy to 46.44 with it - that burden appeared to lighten even in adversity, his record further bolstered with each of the six magisterial hundreds he peeled off last year (plus two more since January). The lack of a Test century in Australia, where he became the first man to lead two failed Ashes tours in more than a century, will perhaps ache the most - though that, as well as his middling record at No. 3, is something Root can still hope to rectify back in the ranks.
Above all, England could be grateful that Root, a man of utmost decency, was there during the hardest of times - there to guide the Test side through the exigencies of Covid, there to front up after each fresh batting collapse, there to have the shortcomings of England's red-ball system pinned to him like a scarlet letter. Five series without a victory over the course of the last year - the worst run in England's history - suggests this was the right time to go, but he has not done so without a fight.
Because there is heroism in taking on the leading role in a doomed production. At the end of last month's Grenada Test, Root didn't so much resemble a character from fiction as that described in Theodore Roosevelt's "man in the arena" speech, "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again". Whether in high achievement or failure while daring greatly, the credit belongs to Root. He is hostage to England's fortunes no more.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick