Cricket

Joe Root carves his niche in the pantheon after an immortal 18 months

In sublime touch: The way Joe Root is batting these days, he can even score with a toothbrush!

In sublime touch: The way Joe Root is batting these days, he can even score with a toothbrush! | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Batters are forever judged against two elusive benchmarks. One is a staggering numerical yardstick: 99.94, Don Bradman’s Test average. This is divine consistency marred by the mortal blemish of a meagre .06 percentage points. The other is a mystical aura that combines swagger, the disdainful emasculation of chewing gum and those rip-roaring shots deflating most bowlers, the kind that Vivian Richards exuded all through his career.

The first yardstick is like the horizon, far and staying out of reach. The second gifts shock and awe in addition to a pathos-infused nostalgia about a past when men from the Caribbean ruled the cricketing world. Bradman’s numbers and Richards’ halo can never be replicated and all that the other batting greats could do was to carve their own niche through their respective statistics — runs scored, centuries etched and longevity at the crease. In that distinct space, Sachin Tendulkar reigns supreme: 200 Tests, 15,921 runs, 53.78 average and 51 hundreds. We are not even getting towards his ODI yield which is equally staggering.

At different points in the last decade, a few names were whispered as possible challengers to Mount Tendulkar. But most wilted in that final stretch, suddenly conscious about their age, waning reflexes, sore limbs and a mind that said it was time for the rocking chair. There was a time when South African Graeme Smith, especially during his prolific start, was seen as one of those who might chase down the Mumbaikar.

Talking from experience

Incidentally during those Smith-ruling-the-charts days, Tendulkar was in Bangalore as part of an Indian training camp. A television reporter, once the cameras and microphones were turned off, walked beside the maestro and picked his brains on Smith. Tendulkar appreciated the South African’s dream-run and then said: “We need to see how he does in the next few seasons and then we can judge. He is a good batsman but we need to watch how he performs in the coming seasons.” This wasn’t a man speaking from envy, this was a legend talking from experience, acutely aware of the cyclical nature of form and conscious about the surprising way injuries could crop up in a sportsperson’s life.

Mastering the chase: Joe Root showed that he can handle the pressure of a tricky fourth innings pursuit by steering England to victory against New Zealand at Lord’s.

Mastering the chase: Joe Root showed that he can handle the pressure of a tricky fourth innings pursuit by steering England to victory against New Zealand at Lord’s. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Smith eventually finished with 9,265 while Tendulkar’s immediate contemporaries like Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid ended their act after crossing 13,000 runs. In the subsequent generation, Alastair Cook, based on his initial consistency and with fewer summers in his rear-view mirror, was deemed a challenger. But at 33 and with 12,472 Test runs, he bid adieu and is placed fifth in the all-time list.

Now another Englishman has nudged fans to ask that question — could Mount Tendulkar be scaled? Joe Root, in the middle of a Bradmanesque run, has suddenly steered clear of his other three middle-order challengers in the sweepstakes. His nimble ways at times remain unnoticed like a pickpocket hoodwinking passengers in a heaving bus. It is a contrast to the muscular look-at-me-ye-brethren aggro and angst that Virat Kohli exudes. Equally Joe Root remains different from Kane Williamson’s sense of the philosopher — who can forget his ‘it is what it is’ quip? And at the other end of the spectrum is Steve Smith whose batting style blends a maverick’s exaggeration with cascading runs.

Varied combo

The four present a varied combo, like the bouquet of choices that the famous 1980s gang of Richards, Allan Border, Javed Miandad, David Gower and Dilip Vengsarkar offered through their middle-order heroics. At one point in the evolution of batting, Mount 10K was seen as this impossible peak until Sunil Gavaskar late-cut Ijaz Fakih at a raucous old Motera Stadium at Ahmedabad in 1987. Sportstar ran out of its commemorative copies and had to go for a reprint. Gavaskar eventually got company and with the latest entrant Root, there are 14 batters occupying this exclusive club.

All-weather man: Root, who is adept against both pace and spin, has made runs on all surfaces.

All-weather man: Root, who is adept against both pace and spin, has made runs on all surfaces. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In his last 22 Tests, starting with the 228 against Sri Lanka at Galle during January 2021, Root the batter has largely held fort, while the skipper waned, especially after an Ashes defeat Down Under and another loss in the West Indies. As a willow-wielder there wasn’t much to fault him about as he vacillated among the 30s, 50s and the big hundreds with two double tons to boot. Overall in these 22 games, he struck 10 tons and specifically in the last 10 innings, he crossed the three-figure mark on four occasions. This wasn’t a case of a captain going down with the bat tucked behind. It was more about a skipper’s shelf-life darting up with a terse reminder while the batter within him had no cobwebs to deal with.

And while his relatively more acclaimed rivals like Kohli (8,043 runs), Smith (8,010) and Williamson (7,289) trail behind him, Root is now at 10,194, riding on a fine stint against the visiting Black Caps. Root may look relatively leaner than the other three but in those wiry limbs there is boundless energy and a battle-ready heart is always ticking. Even during those early days that involved a nasty pub brawl with David Warner, Root showed that he could stand up and counter. As a batter, he has scored on all surfaces across countries, adept against pace and spin. Most importantly like he showed recently against New Zealand at Lord’s, he can handle the pressure of a tricky fourth innings chase. The result was a classy unbeaten 115 that helped new skipper Ben Stokes start on a winning note.

Cook said that Root was the 'most complete English batter' he has seen while Kevin Pietersen could play an incredible innings. Those remarks also hinted at the different strains of English batting. Be it Geoff Boycott's more famous obduracy that spawned varied followers, ranging from the acclaimed Cook to the forgotten Chris Tavare. Or the muscular style that marked Graham Gooch, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith. The constant poetry and frustration associated with the stylish Gower. Or the game-altering dynamics inherent in Pietersen, Stokes and earlier Ian Botham. England has seen diverse batters over the decades and to this mix steps in Root, with his unique traits, ticking the scoreboard over and not averse to a cheeky remark, much akin to Miandad. He can drop anchor and Boycott once said Root reminds him of himself. Equally Root could reverse scoop a six as the New Zealand bowlers learnt.

The right-hander did himself a good turn by relinquishing captaincy. Age is on his side but form, as earlier mentioned, is cyclical and cricket loves its cliched law of averages. England is more invested in Tests and he will get more avenues to score but Ashes jousts can be a drain when fortune looks the other way. Root is aware of this but for now he appears the most probable challenger to Tendulkar's Test runs.

As comebacks go, this is as good as it gets and the hackneyed ‘England strikes roots’ might become a recurring headline. For now he is in the form of his life and like veteran scribe R. Mohan wrote about Vengsarkar’s scorching runs in the mid-1980s, Root can now even score with a toothbrush! At 31 he is on par with what Tendulkar was at the same age in the Test arena. As for what lies ahead, it all depends on his form, fitness and above all the desire to stay the course, a trait that defined the great Tendulkar.


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2022 11:47:37 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/root-carves-his-niche-in-the-pantheon-after-an-immortal-18-months/article65538335.ece