Often when a board has a few months like the ECB, action on the field not only offers a distraction but, importantly, clarity. However, England enter the first of seven Tests this summer with little of the latter, led by a captain yet to make his mark on a side in need of guidance.
Joe Root was unwilling to grade his first year in the job handed to him in February of last year. Instead, he will reserve judgement for the end of the season, once this series with Pakistan and the next against India has been completed. Only victories in both will suggest progression and, even then, the manner in which they are achieved will have to hint at something more sustainable.
On Sunday, Root took the opportunity to relay just how England should approach the summer, as the 12-man squad gathered together for the first time. “It is really clear what is expected of everyone and how we are going to deliver that,” said Root of this meeting. Putting those aspects into practice, whatever they may be, will be difficult.
It is not lost on 27-year-old that he has been treading water as England captain. Five wins, two draws and seven defeats in his 14 Tests so far – six of those defeats coming in one disastrous winter – have left the side neither here nor there. Within that has been malaise, most notably for Alastair Cook, who has only passed 40 once in 17 innings. He is set to equal Allan Border’s record of 153 consecutive Tests and it speaks of Root’s tepidness as a leader that he is allowing Cook, as England’s leading Test run-scorer, as much time as he wants in the side. “As far as I’m aware, I can see him playing for another couple of years at least. That is completely his decision.”
Root’s own form as captain reflects the lack of progress: just two hundreds in 25 innings but 12 half-centuries. He has not had the upsurge in form that his global peers Steve Smith, Virat Kohli or Kane Williamson enjoyed when they took on the armband. In fact, he averages 52 with and without it. Now, at number three, seems a fine place to crack on. He has urged others, too, to seize this summer which, for all intents and purposes, is a blank slate.
“We have to be very clear how we go about this series and how we are going to win this week,” said Root. “If we look at trying to win every game and do put pressure on ourselves, it is going to make it even harder. We know we are a very good side at home and we know what we need to do to perform well here. I think the lads are really clear now. More than anything, it’s important to see a few lads grow and make sure we’re maximising our chance to be consistent and more successful everywhere we play, not just at home.” Two of those lads – Dom Bess and Jos Buttler – will be given every chance to state and re-state their cases, respectively.
Root confirmed that Bess would be given his Test debut on Thursday (May 24). The Somerset offspinner’s 17th first-class match will be a Test debut and his first ever match at Lord’s. The permanent smile he has worn for the most of the week, coupled with the 20-year-old’s exuberance has echoes of a young Root, who’d do well to recapture that youthful twinkle and cheeky chappy attitude that, beyond the pranks, gave him an edge that suggested captaincy was in his future.
“He is a very confident young man,” said Root of Bess, who will wear Test cap number 685. “He seems like he is really clear about what he wants to do in the game and how he is going to approach this week. That is all you can ask of somebody going to make his debut, which is really exciting for me as captain.
“I remember mine and I remember the feelings – you just want tomorrow to come round, get given your cap and get out there. He has approached this week really well and hopefully, he can have a good start to what will hopefully be a long career.”
It is in Buttler, though, that Root hopes will be the catalyst for change. There are worse foils, of course, but the risk is clear. Buttler’s selection, as Root confirmed, is “a very individual case” and he will be looking for him to draw, as ever, on his white ball form to offer England a dynamism that could cover the top order’s faults but also add an exclamation point on their good work, too. National selector Ed Smith also championed Buttler’s leadership qualities, which Root reiterated.
“Look at someone like Jos at No.7, I think that is a really exciting and integral part of our batting unit. He is a very smart cricketer, he has a good brain, vice-captain, he has a lot of experience in white ball cricket. I think that can transfer and this is an opportunity for him to do that in Test cricket. He is a very smart cricketer, he has a good brain, vice-captain (of the ODI and T20i side) – he has a lot of experience in white ball cricket. I think that can transfer and this is an opportunity for him to do that in Test cricket.”
Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed was equally hopeful of igniting a new era. London has been kind to his side, with both Tests won in 2016’s 2-2 draw and last year’s ICC Champions Trophy sealed with a demolition of India at the Oval. Without Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan (both retired) and Yasir Shah (injured) and armed a young side also in search of their identity, Sarfraz, too, is hoping this series will set his promising side on a new path.
“I was part of the team in 2016 and this team is different. We had a lot of seniors then but at the moment we have a couple of good young players so we will try our level best to win the series.
“Yes, the senior players in the team now have to show responsibility. Amir and I have played here before so has Azhar (Ali) and (Asad) Shafiq, so we are seniors and the rest of seven players will play here for the first time. We have to lead from the front, we have more responsibility to give a good platform so that new players take from there. Our Test team is in a rebuilding phase so if these youngsters do well here and gain confidence then it will be good for their future their careers and for Pakistan team.”
All told, it is not surprising that the feeling from both camps, in a series pitting fifth in the Test rankings against seventh, is one of uncertainty. Given the nature of the settings – Lord’s and Headingley surfaces will be greener than usual – both may learn little once the series is decided.
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