By Derek Pringle
It sounds like one of those problems that is the curse of the middle classes, like last summer’s shortage of iceberg lettuce in British supermarkets. Yet, Joe Root’s failure to covert 50s into 100s is becoming something of an annoying habit and not something any serious batsman would want on his CV.
He failed again, if getting another half-century is failure, on the opening day of the final Test in Sydney. There, with his team just moments from taking the initial honours, his near-effortless march to 83 was ended when he clipped a stray half-volley from Mitchell Starc to square leg.
It was by any standards a soft dismissal, more so given that Root, not for the first time this series, had done the hard bit. Yet, it is as if he expects a reward for that – principally that batting will become easier – something rarely the case in Australia where it is second nature for bowlers to make batsmen work hard by keeping it tight and bowling dry.
On this occasion, Root’s brain fade came when he got to face the second new ball with 10 minutes of play remaining. England were 220-3 at the time and in the box seat after winning the toss and batting. This was the last dice throw of the day from Steve Smith, who tossed the new Kookaburra to Starc, still wicketless on his return after suffering a sore heel, and distracted now by cramp in his calf.
The first ball, which swung in late, was met by a pushed drive from Root which he timed perfectly enough for it to reach the long-off boundary. Fours had been hard to come by and this was just his sixth in 139 balls. But the ball was swinging at 88mph, so alarm balls should have sounded.
A focused and totally ruthless player would have reasoned that survival over these last few overs, so England could resume the second day three down, was more important than any runs that might be scored at this stage. Such a player would have shortened their backlift and played for their stumps, minimising the chance of lbw by ensuring their bat did not get blocked off by their pads. But Root’s backlift looked no different to earlier and the next ball from Starc, another full in-swinger which he was late on, almost bowled him as the inside edge flew past leg-stump for another four. Boundaries get the adrenalin going and that is what contributed to his demise next ball.
A calm batsman, something Root had been 10 minutes earlier, would have accepted Starc’s gift of a leg-stump half-volley with a controlled clip, probably for two. But Root wanted another boundary and in his pumped-up state got into his shot a fraction early which is why it went aerial long enough for Mitch Marsh to take a good diving catch at square leg. For a fine technician like Root, there can be no other explanation.
Of course it got worse for England when Jonny Bairstow marched in next with only eight minutes of play remaining. Bairstow, who took the Steve Waugh macho option of not having a nightwatchman, was dismissed for five to leave England on 233-5 – but that barmy decision could not be levelled at Root.
In the build-up to this Test, Root said that Steve Smith, his opposite number, had been the difference between the two sides in this series. I would agree, though Australia’s bowling attack has also been quicker and more penetrative than England’s, while Nathan Lyon has enjoyed the spoils of spin during the series to himself. But Smith, with his three hundreds, has certainly been a major factor.
So, too, has the Australian captain’s conversion rate from 50 to 100, which, along with Virat Kohli, sits at just over 50 percent in Test matches. Root’s conversion rate is roughly half that, at 26 per cent, and needs to be shifted upwards if he is to be considered a great batsman rather than just a very good one. Alastair Cook’s rate, for example, is 37 per cent – which is excellent, a ratio that will have helped shape many an England win over his career.
Root is ambitious which has led to him being something of a problem-solver throughout his career. Now he is captain, though, more advice is coming his way than ever before and I just wonder whether being more aggressive with the bat, and taking more risks (both things advocated by one of his mentors Michael Vaughan), has been part of it?
His hook shot, a stroke he neither plays well nor has been particularly rewarding for him, is a case in point. Indeed, after his horrible dismissal from playing one at the MCG, you’d have thought he’d have mothballed it. But no, here it was again at Sydney, two flappy top-edged hooks flirting with deep fielders the ball somehow avoided.
If he has been persuaded of the macho option, it may explain why he seems unprepared to bat ugly throughout an innings, something Dawid Malan seems happy to do.
Malan, who has so far scored a hundred and two half-centuries in the series, kept going in Sydney, sometimes at a crawl, just so that he could still be there to cash in when his timing clicked or the bowling tired.
Malan’s reasoning is simple. It has, by his own admission, taken a long time for him to get his chance to play Test cricket (he is 30). So dominating bowlers, or looking good at the crease, is of secondary importance after long occupation – the first day at Sydney being a case in point.
There, he looked scratchy, lacked fluency and enjoyed a bit of fortune, when Smith failed to cling on to a low edge off Lyon. None of it, though, distracted him in his bid to grit it out and protect his wicket in the expectation of better things to come.
It is a lesson Root should take on board. As captain, he now has a myriad other matters buzzing around his head taking up space and brain power previously dedicated to run-scoring.
Yet, that can all be left behind in the pavilion when he goes out to bat.
If only he realised it, the crease is the one place when he can be free of all the hassle and return to first principles with his batting. With such attractions, you’d think he’d want to spend as much time out there as possible.
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