“There has been a lot of talk about last time round [Ashes 2013-14]. But we’re a completely different side to then and so are they.”
Joe Root had lashed out at Steven Smith, his opposite number, ahead of the big Ashes series Down Under after the Australian constantly kept reminding the English of what Mitchell Johnson did to them in 2013-14.
Root does have a point. All the talk has been about how Ben Stokes’ absence would cripple England or how their bowling attack is going down like ninepins or how their top order lacks stability that Australia’s own issues have taken a back seat.
The general feel is that Aussies are already 1-0 up because of the absence of Stokes. The hosts have been placed on a pedestal as a nearly unbeatable unit and a rather strong force when that is anything but true. The hosts have problems of their own and plenty of them.
For instance, they seem to have completely forgotten the Joe Root factor. Since the start of 2015, no batsman has scored more runs in Test cricket than the England skipper. So much has been said and written about his reluctance to save England’s top order by moving to no.3 that the very same critics have forgotten the mountain of runs he has accumulated at no.4 for England.
Let’s face it….Root is a giant for England, a humungous growth from his school-boy-demeanour on that 2013-14 disastrous tour. Probably, that series helped him develop his game play, made him a much better batsman than he ever thought he could become. Whatever it is, he holds the key to England’s fortunes this time around.
What could daunt him is that fact he is just one series into his job as skipper of the national side. While he did an admirable job in his debut outing at the helm, Australia and it’s pestering crowds are an altogether different proposition.
“It was very hostile,” he remembers if the Aussie crowd three years back when he came as a youngster in the England set up. “Quite aggressive at times, especially off the field. There were a few chants from the crowd that were quite personal at times, quite offensive. I thought they might give us a bit of banter, but it was more than that. I think they see it as humour. You do get a hard time, but when you win it’s that bit more enjoyable.”
That is exactly what he would look to do on this trip – win games. One thing that works for Root is that the group is a lot more gelled this time around. There isn’t the aura and head weight that a Kevin Pietersen carries or the adamant 194 recipe cook book that became subject of a lot of talk as in 2013. There is unity and friendship in this England squad. There is the team spirit and a better feel altogether despite the profound absence of Ben Stokes.
“We’re fortunate to have a dressing room full of good blokes,” Root says. “You come into the team thinking of Jimmy Anderson the bowler, or Alastair Cook the batsman. Then they come in the dressing room and you see Jimmy Anderson, the good bloke. Alastair Cook, the good bloke. It’s a nice environment to come into.”
This makes Root’s job a lot more easier. All he has to do is manage his troops with the help of these senior players and score bucket loads of runs. If Australia dismiss him as just a nice bloke ( he is a nice bloke! ) who struggles when intimidated they cannot be more wrong.
He has a freedom to his batting, the kind which you associate with players on top of their game. Since his debut in 2012, no batsman has made more runs than Root’s 5323 at an average of 53.76. He has such a solid technique that runs have come in every country he has played in except Australia. That is by no means a weakness though. The last time he was here, the Yorkshire man was young and vulnerable. His game has evolved by leaps and bounds since then and now he is among the elite group of Test batsmen.
He is also extremely good on the back-foot and front-foot, averaging 51.67 going forward and 60.83 going back, another trait that would worry the Aussie bowlers, who would be grappling for strategies against the efficient run scorer.
He is also a busy player and rarely gets bogged down at the crease, something which could render Nathan Lyon ineffective, although he has dismissed the England skipper four times. He particularly because he likes to use his feet, sweep and reverse sweep against the spinners and averages a whopping 64.91 against off-spinners. Although pretty much a limited-overs shot, the slog sweep is also something Root uses often against the spinners.
One factor which the Aussie seamers may want to exploit is his relative uncertainty against the really fuller balls. CricViz estimates that the skipper’s average falls to 30.08 against full deliveries from the seamers. But something around the good length area and it shoots up to 39.09. Short balls are an absolute no-no as his average is sky high at 89.38.
England’s batting revolves around him and with so few weaknesses to target, Australia’s pace battery is likely to find it difficult against Root unless they manage to break the others around him. Even then, the Root-factor is something which the Poms will boast of in Australia.