Joe Root last winter was a boy racer. Now, having been warned for speeding, England’s Test captain is ready to adapt to conditions and drive - in every sense - carefully.
Whizz-bang batting worked a treat in Sri Lanka when England won the series a year ago, unprecedentedly, 3-0. In the Colombo Test, after a wicket fell to the first ball of an over, Root and Jonny Bairstow scored off the next five balls - a daring counter-offensive that spread the field and put England on top. But while it worked against Sri Lankan spinners, England became a cropper when trying to score too quickly too soon against West Indies’ fast bowlers, instead of wearing them down.
Last summer in the Ashes Root went close to the opposite extreme of blocking too much: he scored at 43 runs per 100 balls against Australia, after his audacious 71 in Sri Lanka. In this two-Test series in New Zealand, his intention is to play the situation and conditions. At 28 he has matured.
Instead of “positive” Root is using words like “attrition” - as in England are now “prepared to play some attritional cricket at times” - in addition to his favourite word of “exciting”, which he applied inter alia to the debut centuries by Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley in the first warm-up.
“One thing they (New Zealand) are very good at is they’re prepared to bat long but also when they get their opportunities with the ball to take wickets. They attack up front but happy to build pressure, and when a new batter comes in they’ll jump on that opportunity. I think it’s an area we can get better at. Maybe be a little more patient at times in terms of trying plans for a little bit longer, and being a bit more relentless.
“It (attrition) doesn’t just necessarily apply to our batting, I think it’s with the ball as well: being prepared to go at two an over and build pressure in different ways. You can fall into the trap when playing in English conditions as they’ve been in the last couple of years, to get used to Test cricket being played in fast forward - and it’s not like that everywhere you go. It might have been that way in Sri Lanka as well, but come here and it might be very different. It might seam around in the first session, and the next three days it might become a very flat wicket and a good place to bat.
“So we’ve got to be prepared to adapt to that and manage those conditions, and if it does mean doing things slightly differently - whether it’s controlling the rate with the ball, building pressure that way, or being prepared to score at two an over for 150 overs - if that’s what it takes to make 400 then we’ve got to be prepared to do that.”
Root has not been told by the selectors that he will lead the England tour to Australia in 2021-2, on which England’s Test-match thinking is centred, “but I’d like to think I’ve been backed quite nicely and feel like this is a great opportunity for me over the next two years to take that team to Australia.
“We’ve 25 Tests between now and then. If you get a core group of players together in that period and they share experiences and they become more experienced individually, it’s going to stand you in good stead. You look at the side that won there in 2010-11 and the majority had played between 40 and 80 Tests. It does count for a lot when you’ve played together and you have a feel for how, as a group, you want to go about things and you have good experiences in the bank. It doesn’t always work how you want it to, but that’s what we’re looking for.”
To become consistent Test winners before the next Ashes, England have to become more consistent, Root says, by adapting to conditions “and the significant change in differences wherever you go. In white-ball cricket the conditions do vary, but throughout Tests it varies a lot more in a five-day game, and home advantage becomes more prevalent in Test cricket.”
Root has a right to be keen on regaining a T20 England place, but somebody should have taken him aside and explain a) that T20 hitting is evolving more rapidly than Root’s batting and b) that his pursuit of T20 is damaging his Test batting. He and Jos Buttler went to Australia to play in the Big Bash over Christmas and New Year, and it should never have been allowed at the start of the busiest year of their lives. Both were still in slap-happy mode when the Test series in the West Indies began, and England were 2-0 down before they buckled down.
At least Root, the sensible driver, now realises what the right gear for Test batting should be.