Joe Root’s modern captaincy represents a sea change for England
Every England fan needs a plan for how to follow a winter series. These last few weeks I’ve been lying in bed listening to coverage of the first session or so through an earpiece, which meant there were moments in the early hours, half awake and half asleep, when England’s victory seemed something like a dream, the work of some undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese. It was not just that they won, though they had not managed to do that in any of the rest of the 13 overseas Tests they had played in the last two years, it was the way they did it.
This victory was unlike any other they have won in recent years. The rhythms were off, the selections strange, the action unusual. Even from this distance, half a world away, this felt like a watershed tour, one that marked a sea change in the way England play the game. As if they had learned, at last, that there was no sense expecting the results to change while they kept doing the same things over and again.
By the time it was over, a team with three wicketkeepers, three spinners, three No 3 batsmen and yet no No 3 batsmen at all, had won all three Tests. Away from home, are quinquagenarial events, they come like some obscure comet, roughly once every 50 years.
The last time England did it, in 1963, against New Zealand, they were still managed by one of the spare aristocrats knocking around Lord’s, Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, who memorably told the journalists, “Gentlemen, I wish this to be an entirely informal tour. You will merely address me as ‘Sir’”.
Before that you have to go back to 1896, when England swept a weak South Africa in a series given Test status only after the event. This isn’t a great Sri Lanka side, either, although they were good enough to whitewash South Africa and Australia in home series in just the last couple of years.
The way those series played out likely shaped England’s strategy. It helped that they had advantages those two teams did not.
England’s coaches Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace know Sri Lanka inside out because they have both worked there, and even England’s greenhorn players, Sam Curran, Jack Leach, and Ben Foakes, have had precious experience playing in those conditions with the England Lions, while Foakes played some club cricket in Colombo. Plus, of course, and better than any of that, was the fact won three tosses in a row. After all, captaincy, as Richie Benaud said, is “90% luck and 10% skill”.
Only, Benaud added, “don’t try it without that 10%”. Before this series, it was not clear whether Root had that extra 10% he needed or not. At the start of this tour, he was fielding questions about whether or not he should be in the job. Shane Warne, who, it’s true, had a book to promote, said England should give the captaincy to Jos Buttler and leave Root to get on with his batting. by saying “I feel like I have done some good stuff, we made some big strides during those five Tests [against India], and I have developed a lot as captain.” He has proved his point in the last few weeks.
This was the tour when Root really stamped his authority on the team. It’s been some time coming. He took over the captaincy in 2017 but, since he had never really had much experience doing it for Yorkshire, he has been learning on the job. He has been in charge for 24 Tests and we are just starting to see how his England team shapes up: aggressive, flexible and free-thinking. It’s an approach that seems to have more in common with the way Root’s mentor Michael Vaughan led the side than with the styles of either Alastair Cook or Andrew Strauss.
It cannot be a coincidence Root has come into his own now Cook has retired, or while he has been able to temporarily break up the new ball partnership of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. They are old dogs and these are new tricks. There is something very modern about the way Root wants his team to play, it’s the product of an era when the best players are not specialists but think all three formats are equally important, and want to switch between them. You can see the bold way England go about their white-ball cricket has started to influence their Test game too. Root spoke about exactly that after England’s win in the second Test at Pallekele.
“We are learning from the one-day side,” Root said. “Eoin said to the guys: ‘Go and play with freedom,’ and you saw them embrace that.” Now, Root knows it’s not quite so simple as that in Test cricket. “You can’t just say ‘swing as hard as you can’,” because, he added, “in one-day cricket things are all laid out for you; if you’re batting second for example. And the wickets are generally pretty good. In Test cricket, you have to be more adaptable.”
Through the last decade, England have won by grinding down sides, they have leant heavily on Cook’s runs and Anderson’s skill, Broad’s speed. Root is concocting something different, something new, something distinctively his own.