It was in the dying embers of a futile Yorkshire Vikings chase against Roses rivals Lancashire Lightning. Joe Root, dropping in for a rare domestic Twenty20 between England duties looked pissed off. Though Yorkshire had conceded 204 in the first innings, the dimensions of the ground and quality of the pitch offered hope. Yet only Root was able to put on a score of note. As Lancashire took the game away, the now England captain unleashed his anger with arguably his most outlandish shot to date.
He stepped across to take a ball from outside of stump and unfurled an outrageous helicopter whip into the stands at midwicket for six. Simply put, it was breathtaking. If you’re looking for the video, the best way to find it is to Tweet “Joe Root is not a T20 batsman” and give it a minute.
On Sunday, Joe Root was dropped from England’s Twenty20 side. It had been on the cards. Eoin Morgan, who made the call, confirmed it was one of the toughest conversations he has had as captain. In looking for the ideal make-up of this work-in-progress side, Ben Stokes took Root’s place – a sixth option of seam preferred to one of spin. “Joe was understanding,” said Morgan. “But obviously disappointed.”
The reasons for dropping Root are fairly clear, even if that jars when taking of a player of his class, especially considering the improvement of his 50-over game in the last two years. And it’s hard not to hear talk of a sixth bowling option and not conclude that, right now, it is a useful excuse.
Splitting his career in two using the 2016 ICC World T20 as the midpoint, he has been on something of a downturn. “Anchors” in T20 cricket such as Root are judged on time at the crease and how effectively they use it. Up to and including that World T20, he excelled in the role, averaging 33 balls between dismissals and scoring quickly at 8.26 runs per over (RPO), as per CricViz data. It was in the tournament, against South Africa in the group stages, that Root played the innings of his T20I career: marshaling a chase of 230 with a measured 83 off 44.
While his crease time has not changed much since (31 balls), the runs are not coming as easy. The RPO has dipped to 6.73, which is partly down to issues against the turning ball. With spin on the rise in the format – the nine top-ranked bowlers, as per the ICC’s measure, are spinners – Root was on the wane.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, sitting out at a ground of such small dimensions that England made use of in the first 10 overs before capitulating horribly with 87 for seven in the second half. This was the first time Root has been left out of a side “on merit” since he was dropped for the final Ashes Test since January 2014. Even with the collapse, the 198-9 posted was England’s eighth highest T20 score and the third highest in the UK before India bumped that down to fourth.
There’s a chicken and egg situation at play here. Since the final of the World T20 in March 2016, Root has played 11 T20 matches and the problem lies in the fact that eight of them have been at international level. Those eight have been spread out, too, as Root has been rested from nine England T20s in this period.
Most T20 cricketers – certainly all of the best ones – do the bulk of their work outside the international arena, in the numerous franchise competitions across the globe. The games are plentiful and the chance to work solely on the format accelerates development, along with picking the brains of some of the world’s best players and coaches. It is an avenue that, so far, has been closed to Root. While publicly philosophical, he was privately pained by his snub for 2018’s Indian Premier League. It also doesn’t help that he does not even get a game for Yorkshire. The “helicopter shot match” was back in July 2015 and he has made just three more appearances for Yorkshire since, the last of which was Finals Day in 2016.
Perhaps worse still for Root is that he saw today coming. At the start of the year, he stood up to Trevor Bayliss who wanted his Test captain to rest during the Trans-Tasman Tri-Series against Australia and New Zealand, which took place in February after an intense period of Test and ODI cricket. While he eventually got talked around, there was a feeling that Root had missed out on an opportunity to audition for an IPL spot. There was a certainly a feeling around the auction tables that he simply did not take the format seriously.
It is worth revisiting Root’s words at the time: “One thing I’ve been very aware of for the past two years is the lack of T20 cricket. When that World T20 does come around , this is probably the best window of opportunity for me to develop that white-ball side of my game. You’ve seen how quickly one-day cricket has moved forward in the last three or four years. As someone involved in the Test side, I don’t want to be missing white ball cricket and falling behind, trying to catch up. I want to make sure I’m keeping my place and setting the standards in this team, leading the way.”
Well, it seems that place has not been kept and it begs the question – what is Root’s future in this format? How can he win his place back if he is not getting the time or the opportunity to better himself? To become a better short-form player of spin? Heck, even to get the chance to develop his own twirlers?
Even here in defeat, it is hard to argue that he would have given England an edge. Whisper it, but this felt like the first steps of England phasing Root out of their T20 plans.
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