Nearly five years ago, in front of a packed Eden Gardens, England found themselves within touching distance of their 2nd T20 World Cup crown. They had put up a decent total on the board and had largely stifled the mighty West Indian batting unit, meaning that even a half-decent final over by Ben Stokes would’ve ensured victory.
Yet, in the most remarkable of turnarounds, Carlos Brathwaite produced the original “remember the name” moment, struck four consecutive sixes and consigned the Three Lions to more white-ball misery. Had England won, it would’ve adorned their white-ball revolution with the reward it deserved. However, courtesy of the defeat, a few old wounds, namely their ability to withstand pressure and stand toe to toe with the sport’s biggest gunslingers, were reopened.
That evening in Kolkata, which was supposed to signal the dawning of a new era, ended up as another classic “what could’ve been” situation. Thus, there has been a temptation to look at that particular game as the yardstick, especially when talking about England’s T20I fortunes because the 2016 T20 World Cup, as things stand, remains the last multi-nation T20 competition they’ve played.
In fact, not much, apart from Stokes’ final over (obviously) has been talked about enough, even as the Three Lions look to devise a blueprint to become the first country in cricketing history to hold both white-ball crowns simultaneously. That, though, has also meant that Joe Root’s contributions at the tournament have been conveniently overlooked.
However, as time has passed and as the English think-tank embark on another selection foray before the T20 World Cup, there have been murmurs that Root, despite having not played a T20I since 2019, could still be in the fray.
Eoin Morgan in particular, has refused to shut the door on England’s Test skipper – a statement that reverberated significantly when the Three Lions’ middle order struggled against spin in India in March 2021 and one that could increase in stature, especially with reports circulating that Ben Stokes, who has taken an indefinite break from cricket, might not be available.
Over the years, England have undergone a startling transformation in white-ball cricket. Back in 2010, when they won the T20 World Cup, they’d assembled a band that was capable of rattling any opposition cage but one that had also been labelled T20 specialists. Kevin Pietersen – the cricketer English media loved to hate, defined that campaign and ensured that those around him punched above their weight.
However, until the 2016 T20 World Cup, that outing was perhaps the anomaly, for England regularly prioritized calculation over creativity in white-ball cricket and fell flat on their face. The 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup immediately springs to mind.
Thus, from that perspective alone, it seems absurd that England would think about turning to Root. Not just because he is probably not as belligerent as some of England’s current crop of batters, but also because he has long been dubbed a Test cricketer and one who needs to be preserved against the vices of T20 cricket, considering most of his Test peers have developed a knack of falling like a pack of cards.
Yet, with the T20 World Cup just as big, in terms of England’s ambitions and the kind of history that beckons, England might do well to not think too far ahead and include Root in their setup.
For starters, the Yorkshireman is arguably the best batter on the planet currently. He has been scoring runs for fun and might even be having back-foot punches, cover drives, flicks, square drives and sweeps at breakfast for all we know. Jokes aside, there simply isn’t a batter who is displaying as much composure, dexterousness, poise and positivity at the crease as Root.
Though most of those runs have come in Test cricket, there is no denying that he can translate it into something tangible in the shortest version. Not just because he recently said that the white-ball games (ODIs) against Sri Lanka helped him regain his rhythm but also because he has precedent to call upon.
Back in 2016, the English team were evoking rave reviews for the way the likes of Jason Roy and Jos Buttler batted. The duo, who had become central to Morgan’s plans post the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, were lighting up the T20 World Cup and were doing so with the kind of belligerence that English cricket has now become synonymous with.
Yet, among all of that, Root was England’s highest run-scorer throughout the tournament, aggregating 249 runs in just 6 innings. He stood third in the overall run-scoring charts and had the fourth highest strike rate, when talking about the top ten run-scorers during the event.
His finest hour probably arrived at the Wankhede Stadium against South Africa, where he single-handedly powered the Three Lions to a 230-run heist. On the personal front, he scored 83 runs off 44 balls at a strike rate of 188.64 and by the time he was dismissed, England only required 11 runs off 10 balls.
While the inclination might be to point towards how Root struggled post the 2016 edition, the fact remains that he simply didn’t play enough to establish a foothold in the shortest version, which considering the amount of ODI and Test cricket he has played, isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
Apart from that, Root is perhaps the ideal aberration in an English batting unit packed with power hitters. At present, there is nothing to suggest that Buttler and Roy will be displaced at the top, whereas Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Liam Livingstone (popularly referred to as “The Beast”) will provide a similar thrust in the middle order.
In the process, a slight void remains at No.3 – a void that has been wonderfully filled by Dawid Malan over the past couple of years but has just started becoming a slight worry, considering the left-handed batter’s dwindling returns and concerns over his sustainability in sluggish conditions.
Most of the aforementioned batters have high boundary percentages – again, something that isn’t too unimaginable in light of how these English batters are trained. However, if there are too many of such boundary-hitters and the situation demands something defter, they might struggle a shade.
Speaking of Bairstow and Buttler, they have a boundary percentage of 61.76 and 59.32, respectively. Roy, rather unsurprisingly, scores 69.06 percent of his runs in boundaries, whereas Malan, long viewed as someone capable of keeping things ticking before clicking into overdrive, has a corresponding tally of 62.15.
To an extent, that probably explains why Malan looked lackluster during the series against India. Not only was he unable to keep the scoreboard moving, he saw his boundary options being restricted considerably against spin, meaning that he consumed a lot of deliveries before perishing – the worst-case scenario for England.
Root, on the other hand, has a boundary percentage of just 51.95, which illustrates how he banks on singles and doubles to keep rattling along. His modus operandi is quite similar to the method Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Virat Kohli deploy.
While this particular troika has also faced heat, especially for their strike rate, it is important to note that none of these have the luxury of power-hitters like England. Quite often, their side’s innings is defined by their tempo. In Root’s case though, it could just be the ideal foil to allow the other firebrand English batters to express themselves and create the requisite impact.
In addition, Root has developed a knack of taking crucial wickets in Test cricket – something that England might be tempted to utilize in T20Is too. Not just because Stokes might not be available and he has long been their clutch player, but also because the pitches in the UAE might be tired and may aid spin bowling. To that end then, the presence of Livingstone and Root could allow more elbow-room for Morgan if he decides to omit Moeen Ali and field a four-pronged pace attack.
Root has excellent numbers with the willow in the shortest format in Asia as well, apart from being England’s best player of spin across formats. He has featured in 11 innings and has scored 427 runs at a strike rate of 129.78 and an astonishing average of 47.44. Malan, meanwhile, has only mustered 148 runs in 5 innings and has a strike rate of 120.32.
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Thus, there is enough to suggest that Root, in contrast to all expectations and the sheer number of options England have tried, could be the final piece in their jigsaw puzzle. Interestingly enough, that was the consensus when Root silenced his doubters in the 2016 edition.
Moreover, England, in addition to another match-winner, require someone capable of handling pressure situations and capable of not flinching in adverse circumstances – an area that Root would most certainly address.
And, there is also the small matter of the Englishman scoring truckloads of runs and hinting that this could still be Root’s world (cup?) and that every other mortal is just living in it.
Maybe then, it might not be a huge surprise if Morgan gets on the phone and mutters, “Hey Joe Root, you still reckon you have your T20I kit around?”. After all, a cricketer who nearly defined everything good England did last time out, surely deserves another opportunity to make things right, doesn’t he?