Cricket Eng v NZ

The departure of Joe Root leaves England with huge gaps at the top

There are seven weeks to go until the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s and English cricket is without a permanent chair, a managing director of men’s cricket, a head coach, a selector, and now a captain. Things may start to move quickly on the managing director front in the coming days, but it is still a remarkable leadership vacuum.

West Indies v England - 3rd Test: Day Four

Joe Root’s decision to step down on Good Friday was much like Alastair Cook’s five years ago; a race having been run and the eventual realization that a fresh voice was required in the dressing room. Similarly, the news was broken via official channels despite both men sharing it with teammates in advance, with the lack of a leak underlining the regard in which they were held.

There was also, like Cook, a stated desire from Root to still give everything to the cause. The 31-year-old may have had shortcomings as a leader and a tactician, all the while working with a talent pool shrunk by English cricket’s lurch towards the white-ball formats and during a global pandemic. But his personal form over the past 12 months has been celestial and his lack of ego is such that his replacement – most likely Ben Stokes – will get a selfless, trustworthy senior player in the ranks who is unlikely to brood or cause disruption.

The timing of Root’s departure comes at the end of a week in which candidates for the director of men’s cricket job were interviewed. Rob Key is looking for the likely choice now that Durham’s Marcus North has withdrawn for family reasons. Andrew Strauss is leading the process and is the type to keep a tight lid on things – he sprung a surprise in 2015 when Jason Gillespie was heavily touted to become head coach, only for Trevor Bayliss to emerge from the blue – but talks with Key are believed to be at an advanced stage.

West Indies v England - 3rd Test: Day Four

Did Root know which way the wind was blowing here? Certainly Key, in his role as a Sky pundit, was critical of his leadership after the team’s 4-0 pasting in Australia, pinning the team’s strategic errors and “negative mindset” on the captain and asking how he had survived a cull that saw Ashley Giles, Chris Silverwood and Graham Thorpe removed. Opinions can change upon taking a role and assessing the landscape more closely, but it would have been a tricky appraisal from which to row back.

More light may be shed on this soon, but the word from teammates is that Root made the decision solely on his terms. At the end of the recent 1-0 defeat in the Caribbean, and with adrenaline still pumping, he had re-asserted his “passion” to continue in the role and spoke of “big strides forward” having been taken on the trip. Clearly, it took time away from the pressure cooker – and the need to always think and talk positively – to come to a more logical conclusion.

When considering the nature of the 10-wicket defeat in Grenada last month it was hard to see any other outcome, as, after the Ashes, only a series win could have prevented this outcome. Instead, one of the enduring images was of Root on the balcony in St George’s, hands covering a haunted face, after Ben Foakes was witlessly run out during the defining collapse on day three. Having spent that morning utterly powerless to prevent Joshua Da Silva’s century from turning the match in favour of the West Indies, he looked like a captain out of ideas.

West Indies v England - 3rd Test: Day Four

Not that it was all bad. The dream of being an Ashes-winning captain may have been evaporated in Melbourne by an unlikely executioner in Scott Boland, but away wins in Sri Lanka (twice) and South Africa, as well as a strong home form until last summer, mean Root, should not be damned by a run of one win from his final 17 Tests in charge. That solitary victory over India at Headingley last August was also a record 27th in the job (even if this also comes down to time served and is only one more than the number of defeats). Overall, he has been an unimpeachable ambassador for the English game.

But the pandemic threw up a hugely challenging schedule and there was also the sense that however much Root’s bat glowed, his teams lacked any meaningful identity. Perhaps this was hard to establish in parallel with Eoin Morgan’s limited-overs juggernaut – a setup with such a defined philosophy that even when 16 players were lost to the COVID outbreak last summer, little changed – or simply impossible given the dearth of Test-quality players coming through the system.

Root was also a conflict-averse character and one who often chose not to own tricky decisions publicly, such that still, we don’t know whether the recent call to leave out Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – an extraction that Morgan performed unflinchingly in 2015 – was something he fully agreed with or not. Given that personalities seldom change, he needed a forthright coach alongside him but instead got two similarly amiable facilitators in Bayliss and Silverwood.

West Indies v England - 3rd Test: Day Four

Who steps up? Everything points to Stokes, even if this will place a greater burden on him as an all-format all-rounder. Jonny Bairstow is the only other batter in the team guaranteed a spot, but seldom gets mentioned as captaincy material, while talk of Broad is not without merit but falls apart when considering a summer of seven Test matches that will challenge all the seamers, not least those well into their 30s. Perhaps Moeen Ali should be talked out of Test retirement and return to captain from No7, like a modern-day Ray Illingworth.

Really, English cricket’s leadership reshuffle should start with the position of chair, and then work its way down from there. But if we have learned anything from a horror year that ended with a raft of sackings and now Root’s resignation, the road to recovery will be a long one regardless of who is in charge.

Note: This article is written by Ali Martin and has been published at Guardian UK