Have England overlooked a potential leader in Broad by pre-anointing Root as Cook’s successor? ©Getty
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that it felt entirely legitimate to talk of batting’s “Big Four” – Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root – as though they just were, indisputably, that, and all on an equal footing: batting’s north, south, east and west, its spring, summer, autumn and winter.
When Root started out as England captain in July 2017, their respective averages were: Smith, 61.05; Kohli, 49.41; Williamson, 51.16; and Root, 52.80. In the 26 months since, Root has averaged 40.87 in 32 Tests, while the others’ numbers have maintained an upward curve despite, or because of, the demands of captaincy (true, Smith had something come up and had to relinquish the job): Williamson, 58.16 (13 Tests); Kohli 62.55 (22); Smith, a ludicrous 80.95 (13).
Referring to the Big Four these days, then, smacks of puffed-up patriotic desperation, of an insecure nation grasping for any indication that it is still great – similar to the parochial insistence that Andy Murray was part of a Big Four of men’s tennis when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all a notch or two above him in measures of all-time greatness.
While Kohli continues to monster the white-ball game (and is, with a due nod to AB de Villiers, the greatest all-format batsman we have known); while Williamson, clad in black or white, goes quietly and impressively about his business, his popularity rating somewhere up near Greta Thunberg’s; while the perpetual-motion Smith transforms not only himself into Test cricket’s best-after-Bradman but also the sense of what is even possible and how to go about it, finding new methods in his apparent madness; while all these peaks are being scaled, Root looks in desperate need of a lie down.
The -11.9 run differential between his average as captain and player does not compare at all well to the others in the quartet: Williamson is +9.8, Smith +10.9 and Kohli a remarkable +20.1. Where they have flourished, he has floundered.
Not that the cause-and-effect here is entirely straightforward, for Root has had to operate through a period when England’s batting options have been woefully thin on the ground – so much so that, despite repeatedly insisting his preferred position is number four, he has moved up to first-drop, often coming straight out to bat after the exhausting task of keeping an outgunned team in the contest. Frankly, he hasn’t been helped by the number of times Trevor Bayliss has publicly stated his view that the team’s best player should bat at number three, the implicit message of which can only be that the coach doesn’t believe his captain is leading from the front.
If Root is to rediscover his batting mojo, the most obvious place to start would be with relinquishing the captaincy. Indeed, England captains rarely survive back-to-back Ashes defeats, since the national mood often turns to shame, then scapegoating and expiation. Not that two Ashes defeats are an adequate, unarguable reason in and of itself, and Root may well protest that there are still question marks over how the Australians got the ball ‘going Irish’ Down Under last time, that he has been deprived of his gun bowler here, and that he still has an overall winning record (W16 L13 D3).
It can be difficult to parse the precise influence of captaincy from amid the complex causal mulch of a cricket match – many of a captain’s most important, match-changing qualities don’t have metrics, many of its traits can’t be captured by data – and simply looking at results and working backward from there is often a crude mechanism that fails to grasp how well a captain has done with the resources at his disposal.
That said, few players appear to have improved on Root’s watch and it seems increasingly untenable to argue he’s getting the most out of his team. He has never seemed a natural fit for the job, either. His tactical decision-making has often been ponderous and reactive, not making the game but following it, and the scampishly proactive, scoreboard-ticking batting, an extension of the mischievous personality so often on view when back in the ranks, has been dulled by the burden of carrying this dysfunctional team.
But if Root does go after the Oval, then who gets the job?
Convention tends to dictate that the captain has to be a batsman. Partly this is because bowlers, it is said, are too engrossed in the act of bowling to be mentally available for others, too emotionally absorbed when it matters, and partly it is an atavistic relic of the Gentlemen vs Players era’s division of labour, when the amateurs did the batting and the professionals the grunt-work of bowling, a division of labour. However, England only have one specialist batsman who has nailed down his spot: Root.
Perhaps the answer has been staring them in the face – right through the Alastair Cook era and on into Root – and the best captain England have never had is Stuart Broad.
Why not pick a frontline bowler? Is it inconceivable that one could be a successful Test captain? Rashid Khan has just overseen an away win in Bangladesh in which he picked up the Man of the Match award. Wasim and Waqar both had winning records for Pakistan, as did Shaun Pollock for South Africa (winning seven series out of nine and losing just one), while even Bob Willis – whose media niche these days has contracted to auto-parodic scattershot sourness, which hardly screams captaincy material – won more than he lost. And then there was Imran Khan, for whom a case could be made as the greatest captain of the colour-TV era, three times going toe to toe with the great West Indians of the late 1980s and early 1990s, emerging undefeated in each series.
Broad has plenty of the qualities that tend to make excellent captains: his (figurative) stature, as the seventh leading wicket taker in Test history, is indisputable; he has the sort of forensic intelligence of the natural tactician; and, notwithstanding his not entirely convincing batting against the nose-and-toes approach, he has the streetfighting intensity and competitive instincts needed to help an average team punch above its weight.
Most saliently, Broad speaks brilliantly, as we have long known from innumerable eloquent and insightful interviews in which he has elucidated the logic behind his bowling plans or the mid-spell tweaks and technical adjustment he has made. This is not the be-all and end-all of the job, but there are endless moments as a captain across the various facets of leadership (challenging, inspiring, encouraging), when innate verbal acuity can be decisive – a trait so evidently lacking in the hesitant, tongue-tied platitudes of Root and Cook.
First, there is dealing with the media, taking hold of the narrative around a team and, yes, using these media channels to fire shots across the bows of opponents if necessary. More importantly, there are the countless quietly galvanising one-on-ones, talking up your players in credible ways. And perhaps more importantly still (although this might still be part of our national Churchill Complex), there is the need for inspiring oratory when the team is on the back foot and requires direction – be that in a huddle during an important phase of the game, in the dressing room before a key session, or even sat around the pool between matches.
Of course, the swift, sharp imparting of tactical pointers – selling the team on where the next half-hour of the game is going – needs to be accompanied with actual decision-making nous and judgement, but good cricket brains without the skill-set to communicate their ideas make poor leaders. This is something never quite understood by Geoffrey Boycott, and why he wasn’t really wanted by his charges, either at Yorkshire or with England.
As with all bowling captains, Broad would presumably have a better grasp of handling bowlers’ workloads, although there is also of course the heightened risk of him missing a game through injury. Critics, meanwhile, will say he hasn’t been a horse for all courses in recent times, carrying the drinks in Sri Lanka, but that could all well change with the cloud over James Anderson’s future.
However, with Ben Stokes far too valuable to burden with the stripes and Jos Buttler looking lost – increasingly, a viable selection only as ‘keeper to replace the stagnating Jonny Bairstow – Broad may be the only realistic alternative to Root. A year or two out of him could buy England enough time to find a long-term option, although by pre-anointing Root as Cook’s successor two years ago, they may already have missed the best moment to have handed him the reins.