“Every single one of us has to really throw ourselves into that game, make sure we leave nothing on the sidelines there and put in a really strong performance to get a win and level the series.”
Amid all the talk after Headingley about Joe Root as a captain, having picked up a 27th win that put him beyond any others to assume that role for England, there was one blindspot. Of course, he is not a “great” captain, and it isn’t really anything to do with not winning an Ashes series. At the Oval, he lost his 21st Test – by 157 runs – which now means he will only have won half of his 18 series in charge.
But Root is a good captain. And that’s in italics because it does not mean “tactically”. He has improved, no doubt. But Root is fundamentally good: conscientious, at times overbearing on younger players who regularly cite him as an inspiration. He is one of the few people who is in regular contact with Ben Stokes after the all-rounder decided he needed time away from the game. To princes and paupers, he has a willing ear and a deep soul.
As part of that, Root says the right thing, as he did with that quote above which emanated from a question about how he was in a gruelling summer where, for the first time since 2001, England will finish without a series win. An answer which started with an admission that it has been tough, especially after India took an insurmountable 2-1 lead in the series, and morphed into a rallying cry to others. To give every bit of themselves to the final Test at Emirates Old Trafford, as he has for the other 12 Tests he has played so far this year.
He has been ever-present in 2021, in Sri Lanka, India and at home, while the cast around him has rested and rotated. And for all we might laud the 1,455 Test runs at an average of 66 this year, only four of those 12 matches where he has spent the most time on the field of any of his teammates has had him tasting victory at the end.
There is a Grade Cricketer complex to indulge here, of keeping your wicket while all around you are losing theirs. Even that doesn’t quite tally for Root given only one of his six hundreds – the 180 not out at Lord’s – has come in a defeat. And yet the fundamental “good” of Root is to know that he would trade half of them like crystals in the Crystal Maze to make this automatic lock-in of Test in Manchester a winner takes all encounter rather than one where England can only square the series.
Prior to Root’s appointment in 2017, a member of the side who had played with Root previously joked to The Independent that he was in over his head. During bar talk that he wasn’t “strong enough” – this was a time when strength was measured on weak terms – there was one fact: “he’ll definitely need good players around him”.
A truism, no doubt, because what captain does not need quality by his side to succeed? Root’s 2021 is evidence enough for that. But perhaps most dispiriting is that it was always assumed he would be a “do as I do” captain. For all the admiration of his teammates, the standards he sets and his output have not come close to being matched.
Even with the failures of 21 and 36 in the fourth Test, Root has 564 runs in the series, with Jonny Bairstow’s 184 – at an average of 26 – the next highest tally. Six of England’s seven hundreds this year have come from him – Rory Burns has the other. At the lowest end, of the 18 players to contribute to the 43 ducks scored in 2020, Root is not among them.
And yet, there is also a strange complex with this current England side. What more can they give?
That Burns and Haseeb Hameed reached 100 for no loss in pursuit of a world record target of 368 almost deserves to be taken out of context. A second century stand in three innings – more than Burns managed with Dom Sibley in 26 tries – a plus point for both, and those coming in after them. Ollie Robinson, in his maiden season, has sent down 166.2 overs across eight innings against India to sit atop of both team’s tallies as the leading wicket-taker in the series with 21 dismissals. Ollie Pope returned to top score with 81 in the first innings – his highest in 16 knocks – while Chris Woakes dropped in after over a year without a first-class match to provide 50 to England’s first total of 290, along with seven wickets in the match.
India were 127 for seven on day one, England 31 ahead on day two with four wickets remaining, accruing a first innings lead of 99, and then needing 268 with two-and-a-bit sessions and a full complement of batters remaining on Monday. Sure, they did not win. But they were winning at points, which is something of note given the spate of absences through injury or otherwise.
But as the summer winds down to its last Test, it is hard to know how much more these players can give. The England side of the last four years has been far from great but capable of great moments. This one, cobbled together from offcuts, is a facsimile of that. Twenty players have represented England across six Tests this summer. By Friday, with Robinson and James Anderson mooted for rotation, Craig Overton nursing a sore arm and an outside shot at going in with two spinners, that might be 21 with Jack Leach.
For Leach, or any other recalled to the XI, their job will be to try and avoid defeat, just as it has been for those before them. “That’s all you can do,” said Root. “Throw yourself into it, give yourself the best chance and give the best account of yourself.”
Well-meaning words from a well-meaning captain. No more or no less than what Root has given of himself. And, to be fair, no more or no less than his charges have tried to give. Really, the question is not whether Root is a world-class captain. Rather – does it matter that he is a world-class player given even in such exemplary form in 2021, he has lost more than he has won?
India are better equipped for all conditions and occasions. When they are on form, as they were on Monday, few can match them. Especially not an England side that, for all the desire to “throw” themselves into the contest, cannot meet their standards.
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