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Derek Pringle looks ahead to Joe Root’s debut as England captain and points to a number of areas for the Yorkshireman to focus on…
Let us hope he is not a ruminator, for the last time Joe Root, England’s latest Test captain, led a side at Lord’s they lost in humiliating circumstances unlikely to be replicated for another 50 years.
It was 2014 and Root was captain of Yorkshire when Middlesex chased an almost-fictitious 472 for victory in the fourth innings of a County Championship match. To make matters worse, Yorkshire’s usual captain, Andrew Gale, had dropped himself to accommodate the ‘Boy Wonder’, a bold move scotched once the pressure began to bite.
Three years of steep learning have passed since then and Root, very much older and wiser now, stands poised once more at Lord’s, this time to captain England’s Test team in their first Test against South Africa.
Like Alastair Cook, his predecessor, Root finds himself leading a team he knows well from the perspective of being one of its leading players. It is the principle of the schoolyard yet such a promotion can be fraught with pitfalls at this level and not just because of the intense scrutiny placed upon it.
Cook, who stood down after defeat to India last December, was not a natural leader and struggled initially to cope with the demands of the job though his steely determination to make a go of it eventually saw him through. Root, similarly, seems to comprise a strange mix for a captain, or at least the popular image of one, being both baby-faced and a bit of a wind-up merchant. But he has been a problem solver in other areas of his game (save for being able to hit sixes when needed in white-ball cricket), so there is no reason why he should not at least tame the challenge posed by leadership – few men being able to conquer it completely.
There is a lot of phoney talk about teams targeting captains but there is peril from within. While some, like Graham Gooch, are positively inspired by the honour of leading their country (Gooch always said captaining England turned him on) with an uplift to their game overall, there are others, like Michael Vaughan, whose cricket atrophied with the demands of the job.
Vaughan, who batted anywhere between one and six in his England career, averaged an incredible 50.98 over his first 31 Tests before he was made captain in 2003. Thereafter, his batting average over the 51 Tests he was in charge fell to 36.2, though he did have to contend with a serious knee injury as well as the challenges of marshalling a team with some big characters in it.
Root is close to Vaughan so should avoid any of the pitfalls that befell the latter or at least be forewarned of them. Yet, despite all the advice, you can never quite tell how someone will cope with the added responsibility until they have done it and been through the wringer a few times.
Most important will be Root’s ability to keep his batting form strong despite having to pour resources previously ring-fenced for it into his captaincy. It will be a delicate balancing act and is probably the biggest challenge of modern captains, who can no longer be carried by their team. Yet if a consummate preparer like Cook was able to cope with such a division of his time and labour, you feel Root should be able to manage as well.
Where the new skipper will need to improve, and this is something all new captains underplay to begin with, is in his dealings with the media. It takes very little charm to get the English media onside but England players, whether through incapability or design, don’t turn on the tap very often.
Vaughan was good with the Press as was Hussain, both speaking with enthusiasm. At present, Root is fairly monosyllabic, something that will frustrate when England are doing well and irritate when they are doing poorly. Like it or not, he is head of team PR now and needs to deliver big, bold messages and not only to his players.
Of course the old way was for new captains to come in and immediately stamp their identity on the team but that was an autocratic approach favoured when Britain still had an empire and authority went unquestioned. These days you have checks and balances, in the form of coaches and senior players, to prevent anything seen as excessive taking hold. Even so, Root will probably have one or two things he wants to change in consultation with coach Trevor Bayliss.
Most past captains have either innovated or subtly changed things put in place by their predecessor. Gooch, for instance, placed an added emphasis on fitness, something most players, though not all, bought into. Nasser Hussain drummed into his players the need to play tougher cricket, though his forthright philosophy was not without its detractors, Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff among them.
To make his mark post-Hussain, Vaughan told his players to be relaxed, something that changed once again when Andrew Strauss took over. Under him a creative tension took hold though that probably had more to do with coach, Andy Flower, than Strauss, despite Kevin Pietersen’s text messages to the contrary.
Root will have to contend with his former captain in the team though Cook, who comes into the series against South Africa on the back of some superb form for Essex, has not got an agitator’s bone in his body. He won’t even proffer advice unless asked so Root can focus on just two things – his batting and dismissing South Africa cheaply.
Everything else, apart from giving good press conferences, can be delegated.