Slow progress or no progress? Root’s England can ill afford to lose at Leeds

England

If Joe Root required any reminder – and he almost certainly doesn’t – over the extent to which Ashes results tend to define careers in English cricket, he will have received it on Tuesday with the news of Mark Robinson‘s sacking as England’s women’s coach.

It did not matter that, just two years ago, Robinson oversaw his side’s World Cup success. And it did not matter that, in all likelihood, no coach in history could have led his England side to victory over that Australian side in the recently-concluded women’s Ashes series; there was simply a chasm of quality between them.

What mattered was that England lost the Ashes and that they lost it by some distance. All the promise of recent times was forgotten.

Root’s England side could soon be in a similar position. Put simply, having won none (and lost six) of the previous eight Tests between the sides, they have to win two and lose none of the remaining three Tests if they are to reclaim the Ashes. And if they fail to do so, it will be Root’s second successive series loss following the defeat in the Caribbean. Perhaps more importantly, it would be Root’s second successive Ashes series loss as captain and England’s first at home since 2001.

It may be that Trevor Bayliss’ impending departure – his contract ends in September – buys Root some time. Bayliss could be, in effect, the sacrificial offering required should Australia retain the Ashes. But the stain on Root’s captaincy record would be lasting. As Robinson discovered, you can go from tomorrow’s man to yesterday’s in the blink of an eye.

There are two significant areas for optimism for England and for Root. The first is that, in Leeds, Australia will be without Steve Smith. He is, quite clearly, the best batsman involved in the series so his absence is a serious blow for Australia and a huge opportunity for England.

The second is that, in Jofra Archer, England have a special asset: a genuinely fast bowler with the skill, body, action and ambition to suggest he should have a long and successful career. Young people don’t come with guarantees, but Archer really does appear to have the world at his feet.

Archer is a lottery win of a cricketer. He offers masses and changes much. But English cricket would be deluding themselves if they took much credit for him. That’s not to decry Sussex’s contribution. The club made Archer feel valued and have, no doubt, aided his development. But the fact is he arrived in the UK as an outrageously talented young man who had developed through the Barbadian cricket scene. His availability to England is an enormous slice of good fortune that should not be allowed to hide the faults – the broken fast bowlers, the absence of top-order batsmen, the paucity of spinners – in the English game.

For the reality of Root’s reign as captain – 30 Tests and counting – is that England have made almost no progress. They remain dangerous, certainly, and victory in Sri Lanka was an admirable achievement. But the search for an opening batsman to replace Andrew Strauss – let along Alastair Cook – goes on; the search for a No. 3 or No. 4 to replace Jonathan Trott goes on.

And while Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have enjoyed fine moments, their scores of late hardly offer the return their promise suggests we should expect. Put simply, it seems reasonable to expect a side blessed with the likes of Root, Buttler, Anderson, Ben Stokes et al. to be placed higher than No. 4 (and it may be No. 5 if they lose this series) in the Test rankings.

Let’s be clear: this is not entirely Root’s fault. He is not responsible for the lop-sided county schedule, the embrace of all things white-ball or the absence of the basic red-ball skills – the patience, the denial, the technical ability – that used to proliferate in the county game.

But he does have to take some responsibility. He is England captain. This is his team. If he is unhappy with any aspect of the preparation, selection, coaching or ethos, it is within his remit to change it. And the fact is that, on his watch, the batting order might as well be picked out of a hat and his side are persisting with an opening batsman who everyone knows would be better suited to the middle order.

For while England ended their Caribbean tour with the coach insisting they had learned valuable lessons – notably that the spine of the team, from No. 4 to No. 8, was a strength that should not be tinkered with – they have done almost nothing but tinker ever since. The No. 8 has gone, the No. 4 is a No. 3, the No. 6 is a No. 5 and the No. 7 might well be at No. 6. The England management insist it’s not chaos, but it’s starting to look as if it might be.

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Furthermore, Root has been one of those advocating the “positive” mindset that all too often veers into recklessness – remember him saying “you don’t win games by batting long periods of time” in the Caribbean? – and increasingly appears to be a cover for a lack of defensive technique.

Most of all, Eoin Morgan‘s shadow is starting to loom over Root. For while Morgan seized a failing team and, with a combination of vision, bravery, consistency and unwavering determination, moulded them into world champions, Root has taken charge of an exciting group of cricketers and allowed them to drift. They should be two years better; most of them are simply two years older.

That lack of progress applies to Root as much as anyone. He hasn’t made a first-innings century as captain since August 2017 in just his fifth game at the helm. Since then, he has only made one – the second-innings century in Kandy – in a live rubber. England cannot afford such decline in the returns of their best batsman. If the evidence suggests the captaincy is compromising his run-scoring ability – and it is starting to do so – England may have to consider the possibility of a change.

All of which makes this a vital game for Root’s England. He remains the natural leader of this side and a man with many positive qualities. And alternatives aren’t especially obvious. But as Robinson’s demise has reminded us, Ashes results tend to bookend the careers of captains and coaches. England really do need a victory in Leeds.

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