(Photo: Getty Images)
By Richard Edwards
For Joe Root the challenges just keep coming. After coming off a poor second to Steve Smith in Australia in the first part of the winter, Root’s next task will be to show he is at least the equal of Kane Williamson in New Zealand.
That will be easier said than done.
Despite a batting style that’s far from easy on the eye, Smith has succeeded in putting Root in the shade in the five Tests of the Ashes, scoring three centuries en route to an Australian triumph that ripped the Urn from England’s hands.
Root, meanwhile, has looked, at times, a little boy lost in comparison.
The image of Smith smiling broadly at Adelaide while Root stared blankly into a camera lens has become the defining image of a tour and series that most of an English persuasion would rather forget. Williamson knows how the England skipper feels.
On Australia’s last visit to New Zealand, in February 2016, Smith averaged over 100 in a two Test series that the Aussies won comfortably. Williamson’s only contribution of note was 97 in the second innings in Christchurch in a losing cause.
It was a far cry from his efforts in Australia earlier that winter when Williamson scored 428 runs at an average of 85.5 – a tally which included an innings of 140 at the Gabba and a memorable 166 in a Perth run fest that saw Ross Taylor notch 290.
What Root wouldn’t have given for such a return at venues where England have traditionally competed miserably.
If there is a shaft of light shining down on England’s beleaguered captain, it’s the fact that he has gone back to level-pegging with Williamson in the ICC batting rankings after his half century in England’s first innings at the MCG.
Both find themselves squinting to see Smith disappearing over the horizon, their views further obscured by Virat Kohli in second place and Cheteshwar Pujara in third.
The pair know each other well, with Williamson having helped Yorkshire to the County Championship title in 2014, scoring 629 runs at an average of 57 back in 2014.
He’ll be back at Headingley this summer too, having signed a short-term deal with the county at the beginning of December.
Before then, though, the pair will have clashed in a two Test series that has assumed greater significance since England’s demolition Down Under.
No-one is questioning Root’s position as captain as a result of that defeat.
But if his England side fall to a first series loss in New Zealand since 1983/84, then the Yorkshireman will go into the English summer with the focus well and truly on his leadership.
Williamson will have no such pressures, particularly given the weight of runs that he has scored since becoming captain in April 2016.
“His drive to see the team succeed and his passion for the game are what you look for in a leader,” said David White, the CEO of New Zealand Cricket, when he was handed the role.
He has so far proved an inspired choice, despite the Kiwis’ inconsistency in the longest format.
Williamson has scored 1,177 runs as skipper, averaging 58.85 and scoring four centuries.
During his time as captain, Root has scored 966 at an average of 50.84 – hardly a failure.
Before this Ashes series, though, that average stood at 60.75 following a summer which saw him bat with the carefree abandon of a player approaching his peak.
He has hardly looked out of form in Australia but neither, with the exception of the second innings in Adelaide, has he looked nailed on to register a match-defining knock.
The form of his opposite number – who makes turning fifties to hundreds look as facile as opening a can of XXXX – has hardly helped.
Root’s own conversion rate has become the topic of much discussion in the witching hours back home, not surprising given that he has passed fifty ten times since becoming captain but only twice gone on to score a century, the most recent of those coming against the West Indies at Edgbaston back in August.
England need that to change sooner rather than later but what both Root and Williamson will be acutely aware of is the burden that they carry as their teams’ most senior and respected batsmen.
“Kane has pretty much always had to deal with that,” says former Kiwi all-rounder, Dion Nash. “It’s something that has spurred him on in many ways, it’s certainly not something that has inhibited him. He just loves batting and loves scoring runs.”
Supporters of Gloucestershire and Yorkshire have every reason to be thankful for that, with Williamson having scored as consistently in county cricket as he has on the international stage. Root will hope those runs dry up, if only for a short time, in March, before continuing to flow when he arrives in Yorkshire.
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