“Oh yes, oh goodness” purred Pommie Mbangwa as Joe Root reverse-paddled an attempted yorker from Chris Morris over third man for six. “You’ve just got to appreciate the batsmanship these days. Who thinks to do that?”
It was perhaps the best T20I innings ever played by an Englishman: in the cauldron of Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, amid the pressure of a gargantuan 230 target in a do-or-die encounter with South Africa at the 2016 World T20, Root took only 44 balls to make a showpiece 83, exemplifying the combination of orthodoxy and innovation that secured him his place among the vanguard of modern batting talents.
But since the final of that tournament (in which he scored another key half-century and also claimed two first-over wickets), Root has played only 23 T20s – approximately one every two months. There is little complicated about the diagnosis: as England’s Test captain and one of their few all-format players, Root simply hasn’t had time to keep up with a format that continues to evolve at startling pace.
Since that tournament, Root has played 136 games of international cricket, more than anyone in the world except Virat Kohli. He has regularly reiterated his desire to play more and to improve, turning down the opportunity to be rested for the Trans-Tasman tri-series after the 2017-18 Ashes and even spending last winter eking out 99 runs in seven innings for Sydney Thunder.
“For me to get into the T20I side, it will mean that I have to keep getting better,” Root said before England’s series in New Zealand. “If someone like Tom Banton comes in and sets the world alight, I’ve got to try force him out in the limited opportunities I get to play.
“If that happens, it raises the standard of English cricket in that format. That’s the food chain that cricket is sometimes. You have to be at the top of it otherwise you get swept away and eaten up.”
In the event, it wasn’t Banton that swept Root away but Dawid Malan, and it is hard to think of a more suitable candidate to drive home the point about Root’s lack of T20 exposure.
While few would argue that Root lacks any quality that Malan possesses in terms of natural talent or work ethic, his playing time in short-form cricket has been minimal in the last three-and-a-half years. Malan, meanwhile, has played in the Bangladesh Premier League, Pakistan Super League, Mzansi Super League and the Abu Dhabi T10 in the last 12 months, in addition to the Blast and four T20Is; he has hit more sixes in 2019 than Root has in his T20 career.
And so with ten months to go until England’s first T20 World Cup fixture, Root finds himself sidelined, and with almost no hope of getting an opportunity to impress in short-form cricket.
“I’ve always felt that when I have had a block of that format, to really get stuck into it, I’ve generally done pretty well,” Root said in October. “I felt that was the case with the last T20 World Cup. It took me a couple of warm-up games over a two-week period beforehand to really get back into it, but then once the tournament started, I found my way in.”
But when can that run realistically come? Perhaps burned by his failure to get a contract two years ago, he did not put himself forward for next week’s IPL auction, and the way England’s international schedule fits in with domestic cricket next summer, it is hard to see how he could play more than once for Yorkshire in the T20 Blast. Aside from three outings in the Hundred ahead of the Pakistan Test series, he will have precious little chance to press his case.
Compare that with the case of Banton, the other top-order option who finds himself on the outside looking in. He is currently in Brisbane ahead of the Big Bash, will play in the PSL in February, and could go straight into the IPL season if – as expected – he is picked up in next week’s auction. He would then return in time for the start of the Blast, then head into the Hundred before England’s World Cup preparations ramp up.
It begs the question: why would England take the risk of picking Root? They are blessed with a surfeit of top-order batsmen, all of whom play top-level T20 cricket much more regularly than him. Perhaps, given his record against spin, he might come back into the picture before the 2021 tournament in India, but again his opportunities to play in the format are likely to be scarce.
And yet, counterintuitively, England maintain that Root is part of their T20 plans, and that they simply wished to look “in another direction” at other players in South Africa.
That explanation reflects an uneasy impasse, with all parties apparently unwilling to accept what seems to be obvious: that circumstances have not allowed Root to play enough short-form cricket for him to be among the country’s best T20 batsmen. If the long-term solution is unclear, perhaps accepting that hard truth is a necessary starting point – with the World Cup hurtling into view, it must be time to break the gridlock.