Last week, England were written off, beaten comprehensively by one of the weakest South Africa sides in memory, and ending one of their worst years in recent Test history on a particularly bum note. Joe Root’s captaincy was being torn apart, his shot selection criticised, and, ultimately, his status as leader being seriously questioned. A week later, after one of the most satisfying wins of his time, Root has been hailed by Nasser Hussain – fast becoming the pundit who matters most – for having his best game as skipper. Such is the life of an English Test captain.
What does a Test captain do? There’s the obvious stuff: the field placings, who bowls each particular over, and it’s hard to argue Root has a natural gift in this area. The moment on the final day, when Rassie van der Dussen hit one straight to leg slip the ball after he’d been positioned there was beautifully demonstrative of how randomness plays its part, stark because of how rarely those kinds of things come off for England and not actually Root’s idea, with Broad getting the credit at the post-match presentation. More often he leaves you scratching your head over why rather than struck in awe by how.
However, just because this is the most visible part of captaincy doesn’t mean it’s the most important, and Root rarely gets the credit he deserves for his best trait as leader, which is simply keeping the whole group together when the logic of England cricket tours suggests they should fall apart. All the hallmarks were there – the ravaging by a bug that’s stuck around longer than a South African on the final day and the needless crocking of their most dependable batsman playing a sport plenty of the fans despise.
It was set up to be an all-timer, the kind of tour that sees the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad wondering if they can be bothered anymore, young cricketers like Zak Crawley and Dom Bess overexposed and ruined before they’re ready for the top level, and Root’s head on a block at the end of it all. There are at least five cricketers (Stokes, Sibley, Pope, Anderson and Broad) who played more of a role in changing that course than Root in their deeds on the field, but it might be that none of it would have happened without him.
Under Root, England have had more bouncebackability than a pogo stick on a trampoline and while you might wish they would trade it in for a little consistency, there is still plenty to be admired in it, in his ability to rouse his troops time and time again. What sort of team this England side actually are is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt that they are Root’s team, and that the players themselves back him entirely. It might seem like faint praise, but it isn’t; plenty of vaunted England captains haven’t been able to say the same.
When it’s all clicking, captaincy looks simple. Chuck the ball to England’s two leading wicket-takers first, the southpaw golden arm second, and then a spinner you can trust to keep it tight third. Bat with the clear head and light feet that placed you, for a time, among the best of the era. Lean on your generational talisman when you need to, for tubthumping spells, golf-swing sixes, life advice, anything. Win.
But the sadness is, it won’t always be that easy. There’s a reason why Root averages 42.70 when captain and 52.80 in the ranks, but it’s not as simple as that having that (c) next to your name makes you a 10-run worse batsman, merely very good than great. The Special One is still in there, as we saw at Headingley, or in Pallekele, or at Lord’s back where it all began. He just comes out less often, and not for as long. The complexity of the causes means that there is justification still in giving Root more time, to show he can find that balance more often, but also means that one knock and one Test can’t dispel the questions that have been seeded over 30 months of mediocrity.
Root has bought himself until the end of the Sri Lanka tour, perhaps, and even that could change. But tonight, when he finally does sleep, it will be with a weight lifted, and a feeling of a game that feels like his once more.