Root eyes return to T20 ranks but for now Morgan just does not need him
Test captain available for Yorkshire’s Blast opener today Make-up of national side means a recall is highly unlikely
Two days after the end of a Test summer like no other, Joe Root could be excused for taking an extended break. Instead, he has thrust himself forward to play today for Yorkshire against Nottinghamshire at Headingley on the opening night of the Twenty20 Blast, reflecting his determination to regain his place in England’s T20 side.
In the last T20 World Cup, in 2016, Root played one of the finest T20 innings in an England shirt. Needing a gargantuan 230 to beat South Africa and remain in the competition, his 44-ball 83 steered England to a victory of stunning audacity. In the final, his 54 from 36 balls kept England afloat from the early debris of 23 for three; without Carlos Brathwaite’s remarkable belligerence, Root would have been man of the match.
But since that game, Root has played just 23 T20s in 4½ years. The format has evolved continuously, but Root has not had a chance to develop with it; he has been playing Test or one-day international cricket instead.
A comparison with Babar Azam, Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson – the three finest allformat batsmen in the game and, in Azam, a man who looks destined to join them – is revealing. All broadly perform the same role in T20 – batting at three or occasionally four and acting as anchors.
Of the quintet in T20 since the 2016 T20 World Cup, Root fares worst on every metric. His average is the lowest, though still a respectable 34. More concerning is his strike rate – a prosaic 7.3 an over, half a run an over shy of both Williamson and Smith and a full 1.2 an over behind Kohli.
Root’s issue is less that he does not attack enough, but that he does not attack effectively enough. When he plays an attacking shot, Root scores at nine an over, according to CricViz – at least half a run less than anyone else on the list.
The upshot is that Root is, by some distance, the least valuable T20 player of the five. But perhaps this is little wonder; since the 2016 T20 World Cup, Smith has played 57 T20s to Root’s 23, and the others have all played at least 91 games. Through little fault of his own, Root has simply been left behind.
For all that Root’s pre-2016 record and terrific ODI record suggest a cricketer with the attributes to be a T20 asset, these ambitions have hurtled into a schedule that has denied Root a chance to push himself into T20. He has still never played in the Indian Premier League (he was unsold in the 2018 auction). Only once since the T20 World Cup has he enjoyed an extended run in T20; then, during the 2018-19 Big Bash, he averaged a meagre 15 over seven games.
The nature of England’s T20 team means that the side do not have an obvious need for Root. England’s depth of T20 batting talent is unmatched in their history. And they are really already fulfilling Root’s anchor role.
Jonny Bairstow, the current No3, is essentially a new-age anchor from the David Warner school – as consistent as traditional anchors, but with a greater penchant for clearing the boundary. Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan can also anchor if they are needed to.
In any case, England have less need for top-order solidity because bowlers such as Chris Jordan, David Willey and Tom Curran can contribute with the bat.
And so while Root’s skills would be sought after by many fine teams, the balance of England’s line-up makes them less attractive. A Test batting top six is essentially an exercise in finding the best six players; a T20 line-up is about finding the best-balanced order, which militates against Root. His T20 career is partly a victim of the wider forces in the sport, and partly of simple bad luck to be vying for a place in the type of team where his multifarious skills are least valuable.
None of this is to say that Root cannot make it as a T20 player; almost all the leading anchor players today once faced a moment when it felt as if the demands of T20 may have left them behind. England may yet be drawn to his skills against spin before next year’s T20 World Cup in India. But, for now, Root is an emblem of how bridging the vastly divergent demands of T20 and Test cricket has never been more arduous.