There has been a lot of praise this week for Joe Root’s leadership and the way he spearheaded negotiations for his team over conditions in Australia but the biggest challenge to his authority still awaits.
Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood will be far tougher negotiators with a ball in hand than Cricket Australia officials on a zoom call and how well Root handles those two will go a long way to deciding England’s Ashes hopes and his captaincy legacy.
Cummins twice dismissed Root for golden ducks in the last series in 2019, bowling him with a beauty that hit the top of off stump as Australia retained the Ashes in Manchester, and has taken his wicket seven times in ten Tests. Hazlewood has also dismissed Root seven times with more than half of the 14 dismissals by the pair either off the edge or bowled.
They will not bowl short at Root, he will not face the same peppering that awaits the others, but instead Cummins and Hazlewood will continue to go full hunting for lbw and nicks with a relentless line and length at pace designed to wear down England’s best player.
Root, as captain, carries a big target on his back anyway. Andrew Strauss is the only England captain to score a hundred in Australia this century and just one man has done it twice, and that was Archie MacLaren more than 120 years ago.
Root averaged a decent 47.85 on the last tour but it was nowhere near enough as his team failed to make commanding first innings scores before Steve Smith showed them how to do it as he drained the life out of bowlers.
Now after such a fine year Australia will hit Root even harder, raising the level of intensity when he comes in knowing that if they cut the head off the body, it will quickly collapse in a heap.
They will be quick to remind him that Root has never scored a hundred in Australia. He was dropped for the only time in his career on his first Ashes tour and ended the last trip exhausted and on a drip in a Sydney hospital; James Anderson had to deputise for the post-series presentation.
Root was dismissed as a “little boy” leading England by Ricky Ponting, who called on him to show a bit more fire after his side lost the Ashes after the third Test in Perth where he tried to be too nice to his own players by suggesting England had matched Australia, despite the scoreline. “You need to be more than that as a leader, especially when things aren’t going well,” said Ponting – and Root never shed the little boy lost tag.
Again there is no Ben Stokes to rally England but Root has matured as a captain and a man over the past four years. He promised those close to him he would make 2021 his year and so far he has been as good as his word, scoring 1,455 runs to average 58.06 and carry his team. He returns to Australia with his career average back over 50.
He commands the respect of all his players and given the lack of leadership by the ECB in recent weeks, Root has been a beacon of light. He struck a good bargain for his players, ensuring the right conditions for families when they arrive in Australia, and cleverly played the media game by leaving on the table the threat of mass pull outs from the Ashes tour, even though it was generally left unsaid.