Joe Root: Caught between two ideologies

As Joe Root begins a new chapter with England as captain, he faces a significant strategic dilemma.

Joe Root at Headingley during his official unveiling as England captain.   -  Reuters

In many respects the transition of England captaincy from Alastair Cook to Joe Root has been as smooth as the ECB could have ever hoped it would be. Few previous England captains have had the chance to step down on their own terms, as Cook has done; few have faced as little competition for the job, as Root has done; and few have inherited a dressing room seemingly as united, as Root has done. Beneath these pleasantries, however, there is a significant strategic dilemma facing England’s new captain.

One of the less salient factors in Cook’s resignation may well have been the growing sense of incongruity between his own philosophy and that of head coach Trevor Bayliss.

While Cook’s captaincy, much like his batting, was defined largely by caution, that approach appeared increasingly at odds with Bayliss’ mantra of more aggression. It was a contrast that came to a head during England’s tour of India when on a number of occasions, most notably after the Mohali Test, Bayliss was critical of England’s defensive approach with the bat and extolled the virtues of meeting adversity with aggression. Cook’s tenure — for a number of reasons, most pertinently results — had run its course, but it would be wrong to dismiss the differences in style between Cook and Bayliss as irrelevant to its denouement. Had they been disciples of the same cricketing creed it is not impossible to imagine Cook being persuaded to fight on for another 12 months.

It has generally been assumed that Root, of a generation younger than Cook, a more outgoing individual and a three-format cricketer, will correspond more closely with Bayliss’ approach than Cook did. Whether or not he does — how aggressive he is as captain and how aggressive his team is — will be Root’s first major, and perhaps most significant, decision as captain.

A critical reason behind Bayliss’ appointment as head coach in May 2015 was his pedigree in white ball cricket, and since taking over he has instilled a limited-overs positivity in England across formats. While the change has brought about a transformation in England’s limited-overs cricket and a tangible lightening of the mood amongst the squad who appear liberated by the new regime, the results in Test cricket have been less convincing: after beating South Africa away, they faltered against Pakistan at home before capitulating in the sub-continent this winter. There is no shame in drawing to Pakistan at home, Bangladesh away and losing to India away, but it was the manner of the results, with sagacity at times sacrificed at the altar of aggression, that gave cause for concern.

It has generally been assumed that Joe Root, of a generation younger than Alastair Cook, a more outgoing individual and a three-format cricketer, will correspond more closely with manager Trevor Bayliss’ approach than Cook did.   -  Getty Images

 

It is crucial that Root’s captaincy approach is shaped by the right forces. Such was England’s lethargy in limited-overs cricket until last season that their belated adoption of attacking batting was as much a tactical necessity as it was a tactical choice; yet the same cannot be said of their approach in Test cricket. While aggression is the zeitgeist of the age and an entirely legitimate tactic, it has been an emerging theme of England players under Bayliss to justify their approach in the five-day format in the name of playing entertaining cricket. It cropped up again recently, as Ben Stokes — a perhaps symbolically aggressive appointment as vice-captain — said that England “want to perform in a manner that makes people want to come and watch us.”

The relationship between competition and entertainment in high-level sport is an intriguing one, but it is one that, at international level at least, should not see the former compromised by the latter. Why England’s players have been so keen to promote their role as entertainers is an awkward question, no less because it comes back to complex issues regarding cricket’s declining popularity in England; the responsibility of which lies with the ECB, not the players.

At his official unveiling as captain at Headingley, Root, although understandably coy about the future direction of his team, tempered references to the players “enjoying their cricket” with a desire to “make England a tough team to beat.” This sentiment was echoed by Andrew Strauss and was a prevailing theme of his first media engagement.

In the ascension of Root, the golden boy of English cricket, to the captaincy there is a sense that this England team must now grow up with him. In Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, England have a fine crop of players who are now not so young and whose time has come; Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad will not be around forever.

There is a fine line between encouraging the players to enjoy their cricket and creating an environment where failure is accepted. It is crucial that Root and England stay on the right side of that line as they begin this new chapter.