Root's mantra: To be 'consistently useful' within evolving England set-up

His returns have dipped as the McCullum-Stokes partnership has flourished, but he's finding his niche in the side once more

File photo: After briefly seeing his average drop below 50, Root has bounced back with some big and useful scores  •  AFP/Getty Images

File photo: After briefly seeing his average drop below 50, Root has bounced back with some big and useful scores  •  AFP/Getty Images

A score of 57 for someone who has 84 fifty-plus scores - 28 of them hundreds - is small fry in the grand scheme of things. But Joe Root's knock in England's second innings of the first Test against New Zealand carried something more. A sense he is starting to fit in under the new regime.
That might sound a little like heresy when talking about one of only two Englishman to pass ten thousand Test runs, second only to Sir Alastair Cook by 1,772 on the all-time run-scorer's list, with time on his side to become No 1. Not to mention the fact that he's averaging 50.68 since Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes took charge of the Test side at the start of last summer, after Root had stepped down as captain.
But the 19 innings so far have been one of rediscovery. While the team has gone from strength to strength, a tenth win in 11 matches coming in Mount Maunganui, Root has lost his sense of equilibrium out in the middle. It began midway through the 2022 season, averaging 11.50 in the home series against South Africa, then just 25 on batting-friendly surfaces in Pakistan.
It was in Pakistan that his career average dropped below 50 after moving it back to that figure - and beyond - with a stellar 2021. His McCullum-Stokes average is only as high as it is thanks to scores of 115 not out, 176, 86 not out and 142 not out in his first eight innings under their watch. That patch, he explains, came about through liberation from soul-crushing leadership duties.
"I think if I'm being brutally honest with all, there was the initial relief of coming out of the captaincy," Root explained. "Now I'm just trying to find out what my role is within this team.
"It sounds silly having the experience I have, but you want to be involved and want to be a part of it. You want to heavily contribute, and I felt like I've not been able to do that the last few Test matches.
"It's nice in a small way to have a little bit in that second innings - runs wise and performance wise. I felt like I found a really good tempo in how I wanted to bat. I didn't feel like I was in fifth gear, I felt like I was playing quite reserved in some respects but still scoring very quickly and I think that's the beauty of the nature of this team. Because we can bounce off each other and already in a short space of time, some good relationships have been developed in that batting group and it's leading to some wonderful results."
Tempo is the right word, here. The knock on day three at the Bay Oval came at a strike rate of 91.93, as England looked to take the game into the twilight period when they would get a second crack at New Zealand's top order. Time rather than runs was the main focus, allowing Root to play his more natural game. Stuart Broad, who removed four of the top order that evening to leave New Zealand 28 for 5 after England eventually set them a target of 394, put it best: "Rooty found that ODI rhythm".
This is not so much a crisis of confidence or identity, but getting swept up in the wave of attacking batsmanship rather than riding it. The strength of the tides over the last nine months has evidently been too great to resist.
"I've always bounced off the guys at the other end and tried to play what's right in front of me. In the recent past it's a case of ... the rhythms of the game, I've maybe got a bit caught up in it. But I'm not too far away from what's given me success.
"I didn't feel I tried to force it second innings and when I'm playing well that's one of my strengths: I can score freely and I can rotate the strike. As soon as there are sweepers out, a deep point, I can drop it and get off strike, keep the scoreboard moving. I've not performed for a little while, so I had bit between my teeth second innings and it's given me a little sharpener, a kick up the backside, that this is how I need to play my cricket. How I can be consistently useful in this group."
Is he overthinking all this? Talk of working out a format he has more or less cracked feels like he is. It does feel like he is workshopping a new sound when the classics still have their pull amid the techno blaring around him.
He insists he's not, and you will have to take that at face value. He has always been a batting purist rather than an obsessive, grooving in the nets until he feels comfortable rather than drained. "I've not gone full Matt Fitzpatrick on it," he countered when asked if this professional introspection has involved any note taking. Fitzpatrick, a 28-year-old English golfer who won the 2022 US Open, has recorded every shot he has taken since the age of 15.
And yet, there is a new club in Root's bag that has become a lightning rod for what is perceived as unnecessary tinkering to a seemingly flawless square-on, high-elbowed approach. The now infamous square-on, reverse lap over the slips first got an airing in 2021 against Mohammed Siraj, but has been brought out regularly over the last year under Stokes where freedom of expression is encouraged.
Tim Southee and Neil Wagner were on the receiving end last summer, and he used it during his recent ILT20 stint with Dubai Capitals. It looked in good order during the warm-up match, lifting Jarrod McKay over the fence in Hamilton on his way to a tidy 77.
It also worked in the first innings at Mount Maunganui, Wagner again on the receiving end for four which took Root to 13. Alas, six balls later, an attempt to repeat the trick was caught well by Daryl Mitchell at second slip.
Speaking to Wisden Cricket Monthly, he explained the rationale behind the "minimal risk" shot as a counter to a bowler operating on "sixth stump to a 7-2 off-side field". The vacancy down at third man also increased its value, which was presumably the rationale behind the reverse sweep off Michael Bracewell that brought about his dismissal in the second innings. That was arguably much worse than his downfall in the first given it came at the start of the last over before the first break on day three.
"Sometimes you get a good ball," he joked. "In the book it's caught first slip, isn't it?"
"It was calculated: it was to get them to bowl both sides of the wicket, change their plans and in that middle session, force the game. You take calculated risks. I've got where I've got to by trusting my gut. It just didn't quite work out: I just sort of middled the edge of it."
So, will he pack it away? No chance.
"It's not going to stop me playing it. Maybe just be smarter about playing it, having played it once, maybe look at my movements ... because he bowled it wider. You have to give the bowler credit in some respects. But yeah, it's now part of my Test game and I'll continue to utilise it when it's the right time."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo