They were the Fab Four – Steve Smith, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. Incontrovertibly the outstanding batters of their generation, they shared the top four slots of the rankings for a number of years, a sort of batting equivalent to Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
A batting average of 50, especially when the player has name as many Test appearances as these four, is usually accepted as a hallmark of “greatness”, whatever that means. At the time of writing, Kohli average just under 50, Root just over 50, Williamson 52 and Smith just under 60.
Although unquestionably part of the same cricketing generation, the Fab Four are not exact contemporaries. Root is the youngest; he and Williamson are 31. Kohli and Smith are 33.
Root may be the youngest but, because he plays for England, he has played more Tests than the others. He was the first to pass the landmark of 100 Tests – Kohli has since joined him – and the only one so far to make 10,000 Test runs.
There was a feeling, though, around 2019, that Root was falling behind the others. There was no loss of form as such. The problem was his conversion rate: he was making plenty of fifties but not enough hundreds.
In 32 Tests between January 2018 and December 2020 Root made just four hundreds. As at the end of December 2020, he had made a total of 17 Test hundreds. In comparison, Kohli had made 27, Smith 26 and Williamson 23.
As always, England played more than anyone else in the height of the pandemic but at least Root had time to take stock of his batting and consider what his confreres in the Fab Four – especially, it seems, Williamson – were doing differently. The results have been extraordinary.
In 25 Tests between January 2021 and August 2022 (the first Test against South Africa) Root has made eleven centuries, including two doubles and three other scores of over 170. By contrast, Kohli, Williamson and Smith played 29 Tests between them and made two centuries: Williamson’s 238 against Pakistan at Christchurch, and Smith’s 131 against India at Sydney; Kohli’s last Test century was his 136 against Bangladesh in November 2019.
The not so Fab Three were not the only batters Root left trailing in his wake. His output in comparison with his England teammates was almost embarrassing. In the calendar year 2021 Root scored 1,708 runs, at an average of 61, 26.21% of England’s total; only Don Bradman (twice) and Gary Sobers have achieved higher percentages. England’s second highest run-scorer in the year was Rory Burns, who scored 530 runs at an average of 27. Burns made one century during the year. No other England batsman made one.
Root’s six hundreds in 2021 – equalling Denis Compton’s record for an English batter – came in two magnificent bursts. (In between he had eleven successive innings without a fifty.) At the beginning of the year, in the subcontinent, he made 228 and 186 against Sri Lanka and 218 against India. England won all three games and Root became only the second batter, after Kumar Sangakkara, to pass 180 in three successive Tests. Then, in the English summer, against a high quality Indian attack, he made centuries in each of the first three Tests, becoming, in the process, the first Test captain to top score in five successive innings.
Root likes to bat at four. Whenever he went in, in this magnificent year – for him – England seemed to be 23 for two; yet he rarely seemed to be in any difficulty at all.
Like most of the great players, Root manages to make it all look so easy. He seems incredibly relaxed at the crease. Some batters – Smith is the obvious example – are incredibly busy as they prepare for the ball’s arrival. Root is busy in the best possible way, after the ball has been delivered. He is not a big hitter or a dominator in the way of Viv Richards or Kevin Pietersen. But he is exceptionally difficult to keep quiet. Spectators are often startled to realise, after watching Root for a while, that he is, say, 25 not out, and nobody has quite realised how. His timing and placement are perfect. This capacity for moving the score along naturally and almost unnoticeably becomes more pronounced as a Root innings develops. This makes Root an exceptional challenge for a fielding captain. Once he is settled, and he knows it is his day, he is literally playing with the field placing ; power is almost irrelevant.
He has all the shots, and plays all around the wicket, and is an especially sumptuous driver. He gets a lot of runs in the third man area with a sort of steer, which can get him into trouble when things are not going exactly right, and he tries to hit balls which might be better left alone. His most significant innings prior to this most recent run of form was his 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2016. It cannot have happened often in Wisden’s 159 year old history that a single innings was the subject of an article but Jon Hotten wrote one about this innings in the 2017 Almanack. It gives a fascinating insight into Root’s mindset.
2021 saw at its height his ability to cope with different conditions. Nobody is going to claim that Sri Lanka are currently one of the great Test sides. But they are always a challenge at home. Lasith Embuldeniya is a very handy slow left armer: he took 17 wickets in the two-match series. Most of England’s batters poked and prodded at him with hard hands. Root swept and reverse swept with utter precision and conviction.
The India series in England saw very different challenges presented by an attack including Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. In the course of the first Test at Trent Bridge Root became England’s highest run scorer in all formats. His best innings of the summer was his undefeated 180 in the second Test at Lord’s. The game ended in disaster for England, for which Root’s captaincy must bear much responsibility, as England’s pace bowlers lost the plot against Bumrah and Shami, who then destroyed England’s batting.
For the purposes of this article we can cast a veil over Root’s captaincy. Suffice to say that he had his successes, including overseas wins in Sri Lanka and South Africa, but that on the whole the lows outnumbered the highs.
His record in Australia is more difficult to ignore. He has undertaken three Ashes tours – twice, unusually, indeed uniquely in modern times(i.e., after World War One), as captain. England lost all three series emphatically, indeed overwhelmingly. Root has played 14 Tests in Australia, scoring 862 runs at an average of 35, with a highest score of 89. In every other location his record is outstanding; in Australia it is not. (His record against Australia in England is excellent. He has hit three hundreds against them at home, including 180 at Lord’s in 2013, when he opened the batting with Alastair Cook.)
2022 has seen a continuation of the majestic form of 2021. If anything, relieved now of the captaincy, his form has been even better. His performances in the New Zealand series were truly outstanding. His not out century in the first Test at Lord’s was a masterclass at how to construct a run chase; without that brilliant innings, the McCullum-Stokes transformation might never have happened. There followed his magnificent demolition of the India attack in the re-convened fifth Test at Edgbaston.
He has always been immensely popular. He may not have been the greatest tactician as captain but his handling of the public relations side of the job was exemplary. The affection for him is frequently and rather hauntingly demonstrated by the crowd’s salute as he reaches a landmark or simply walks out to bat: “Rooooot!”
At 31 he has reached a stage where many batsmen are attaining their peak. Cook, his predecessor as England captain, and rock, retired from Test cricket at 33. Somehow you can’t see Root doing that. If he carries on till he’s 40, like another predecessor captain, and rock, Graham Gooch, then surely no Test batting record is beyond him.
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