Joe Root could never quite become the captain England wanted him to be. He said all the right things, and occasionally did them too – but not often enough, and increasingly not when it mattered. In the end, the burden of one Test win in 17 proved unbearable.
He finishes with a record that can be twisted this way or that, according to taste. Last August, following England’s win over India at Headingley, he became their most victorious captain, with 27. Four months later, after defeat by Australia at Adelaide, he became their most defeated, with 26.
Throw in 11 draws, and he was England’s longest-serving captain, with 64 Tests in charge, five more than Alastair Cook. And that was the nature of Root’s leadership: he hung around, winning some, losing some, hoping it would all get better. Damagingly for England, it got worse.
Joe Root’s lack of tactical nous has cost England games over his period as skipper
There were mitigating factors that none of his predecessors had to deal with: a rest and rotation policy that frequently deprived him of his best team, injuries to star players brought about partly by a ridiculous schedule, the exhausting nature of Covid bubbles.
Daft selections did not help either, culminating in mind-boggling decisions at the start of the Ashes and the dropping of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson for the tour of Caribbean. Without them, England predictably lost. As final nails go, this one felt strangely self-inflicted.
It’s also true that England’s red-ball batting stocks are as low as they ever have been, thanks to an obsession with the limited-overs formats. For all Root’s good fortune in captaining Ben Stokes and – when he wanted them – Broad and Anderson, he has not otherwise been blessed.
But circumstance is one thing. His essential problem was a lack of tactical and strategic acumen. These qualities can be over-rated: even as thoughtful a leader as Mike Brearley wouldn’t have led England to the Ashes in 1981 if Ian Botham hadn’t turned into superman. Root, though, was so far off the pace it began to cost England matches.
Take the Lord’s Test against India in the summer, when they needed two tail-end wickets on the final morning to leave them a chase of below 200. Instead, Root allowed his bowlers to get carried away with trying to hit Jasprit Bumrah, retaliation for a short-pitched spell at Anderson.
England lost the plot and the game, leaving Root to admit he had got it wrong. Towards the end of his reign, the apologies mounted up – admirable in one way, since sports stars don’t often do public mea culpas, but not entirely reassuring.
The Yorkshireman’s personal performances stayed at a high level despite all seeming to go wrong around him
Neither did Root possess the knack for man-management that made Michael Vaughan such a good leader. And if Vaughan presided over the most potent pace quartet in England’s history, he also knew how to get the best out of them. The impression left by Root, never entirely resolved, was that he was unable to handle Broad and Anderson, or persuade them to pitch the ball up. Vaughan would not have allowed any such perception to fester.
Root was too nice to be bad cop, which ruled out a Nasser Hussain-style approach. And, unlike Cook and Andrew Strauss, his position in the batting order was a constant source of debate. An obliging figure, he jumped between No3 and 4, depending on the weakness of England’s top order.
Where he excelled, eventually, was in the most basic expression of a captain: he led from the front, with buckets of runs. In this respect, he was more like Graham Gooch, whose ascent to the job in 1990 coincided with the purplest batting patch of his career.
Joe Root departs the role as England’s most victorious ever captain – and also the captain with the most Test defeats
Despite personally enjoying a record-breaking 2021, Joe Root saw his side slip to series defeat after series defeat and his position became untenable
Usually, England captains’ batting form tails away, so that a lack of runs becomes the single biggest factor in their demise. But Root, after a quiet time in 2019, when his Test average was 37, grew in stature.
Last year, he rose above the mediocrity of his team-mates to score 1,708 Test runs at 61 – an all-time-great performance. He singlehandedly won a series in Sri Lanka, then a Test in India. But without support from others, it was not sustainable. And Root himself had few other qualities to fall back on, save for his personal popularity.
Then there was the Ashes. Much is forgiven if England beat Australia: Mike Gatting won only two of his 21 Tests in charge, but both were Down Under in 1986-87 – enough to retain the urn and earn him his slot in history. David Gower won five Tests out of 32, but three in 1985 saw off Allan Border’s Australians.
Root had no such luck, a pair of 4-0 defeats in Australia sandwiching a seat-of-the-pants 2-2 draw at home in 2019. He would have traded many of his other wins for a single Ashes triumph. It was not to be – and neither, ultimately, was his captaincy.