Headingley: Joe Root is coming home, back to Headingley for the third Test, and the Ashes will be coming home too if England’s captain can complete the shift in the balance of power by batting his best - back at No 4 - and making the most of Jofra Archer.
Only once have England won an Ashes series at home under a captain who has been a passenger in the side. All the other successful captains have at least kept their game together, if not led by outstanding example.
For English preference, Root will follow the second route and lead from the front like Len Hutton in 1953, Peter May in 1956, David Gower in 1985 and Andrew Strauss in 2009. At the right moment, in the third Test of 2005, Michael Vaughan shed the inhibitions which can be imposed by captaincy and scored 166 at Old Trafford to show who was boss.
Root has yet to find consistency. At Edgbaston, at No. 3, he was superb - so far as he went - in wearing down Australia’s three pace bowlers, taking 110 balls over his fifty. The beneficiaries should have been Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali when the ball and bowlers were ageing; the ninth-wicket stand between Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad, though gallant, was insufficient to achieve a significant first-innings lead.
Gone, thank goodness, was Root’s gameplan of trying to impose pressure on the bowlers, which had worked wonderfully in Sri Lanka, when England swept and reverse-swept the home spinners to distraction and a 3-0 defeat. Trying to do the same in the West Indies, playing too many shots too soon, England were 2-0 down before realising that against fast bowling, pressure has to be soaked up over a long haul before it can be imposed.
Root changed his technique at Lord’s - when an England captain has plenty else to focus on mid-series. The modern English batsman is forever tinkering, so wary of orthodoxy, unlike his English predecessor or contemporary Indian counterpart. But this was a change of stance by Root.
In the first half of his Test career, to August 2016, Root was dismissed lbw seven times: since then 19 times, including the first innings at Lord’s, when trapped by Josh Hazlewood. He shifted his stance leg side for the second, exposing his stumps - and bagged the first golden duck of his England career, caught behind. It can happen, especially against Pat Cummins with a new ball.
While Hutton and Strauss were openers, May, Gower and Vaughan were not - but they were shielded by their opening pair. Root has not been. He had to bat after 7.2 and 9.5 overs at Edgbaston, after only 1.3 and 4.1 overs at Lord’s. Fine if it is the first morning; not if he has just been racking his brains on how to dismiss Steve Smith.
So it makes no sense for Root, batting at three, to protect Joe Denly; Denly has to bat at three to give Root longer to compose himself and his innings. If Rory Burns, Jason Roy and Denly can get the score beyond 50 before Root comes in, or see off the new ball for 20 overs, they will have done their job in the context of this low-scoring era.
As a captain, Root has to avoid becoming a second Douglas Jardine, as obsessed with “Bodyline” to dismiss Smith - albeit he will not be able to play at Headingley - as Jardine was to defeat Bradman. It fires up the crowd to see a packed leg-side field and Australian batsmen ducking and fending off bouncers. But Archer is skilful enough to bowl outswingers, too, and while plenty else changes in cricket, the most effective way to dismiss Test batsmen is still aiming at off or fourth stump with outswing and the odd nip-backer - as David Warner is proving - with the occasional short ball.
Slow as Lord’s was, Root was not playing the percentages on the last afternoon when he gave Archer one slip.
The only England captain in a winning Ashes series at home who was a passenger was Arthur Carr in 1926, and he was dumped after failing to reach 20 in the first four drawn Tests, before Percy Chapman took over, scored a few and won the final Test. But let us not think the pre-war past was all champagne, and society gals in furs, for England captains in an extended belle epoque.
When a new bowler, Fred Root, was called into the England team in 1926, Carr gave him “pages of written information about our Australian opponents to go through. It proved to be remarkably accurate,” as Root - no relation - recalled.
All England captains who have won a home Ashes series have been batsmen, except in 1884. Joe Root, according to precedent, does not have to be England’s leading run-scorer, as some of his predecessors were. Michael Brearley in 1977, and Alastair Cook as he was in 2013 and 2015, did not make a century, but they did keep their own game together, and betrayed no vulnerability, in leading their team over the historic line.
- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019