To be an England cricket fan is to be old friends with triumph and disaster, those twin impostors that we never do treat just the same. On Sunday night, as England tried to save a Test match, there was a different sensation, all too familiar from today’s politics: when you know the ship is sinking, and nobody can stop it because you’ve got the wrong captain.
It wasn’t the fact that England lost, heavily, in a cloudless corner of New Zealand that looked custom-built for a draw. It was the way that they played. Their captain, Joe Root, had the chance to set the tone on the final day, which should have suited someone who leads by example. He was defensive without being adhesive. A naturally buoyant young man dished up timidity and tedium.
Root was trying to set an example. England’s new coach, Chris Silverwood, had announced that they were going to bat time, as the pros say. But when you’re trying to save a game from 200 runs behind, you do need to score those 200 runs. Instead, the specialist batsmen radiated inertia. They never gave the New Zealand captain, Kane Williamson, any worry about saving runs as well as taking wickets. They never twigged that the best form of defence was selective attack.
Eventually, tied down by ropes of his own making, Root flapped at a gentle bouncer that was asking to be walloped or ignored. He had made a tortuous 11 off 51 balls. The new coach’s policy had hamstrung his closest associate. Silverwood had decided that England could do with being boring, after (arguably) over-attacking under his predecessor, Trevor Bayliss. But there’s boring and boring, and this was boring a hole in their own hull. The policy shouldn’t be to bat time: it should be to play the situation.
The England cricket captaincy, currently shared by two men, is more than a job. It’s a national institution, steeped in 142 years of collective stress. This year has been the best of times – a first World Cup win, masterminded by Eoin Morgan, the England captain who is so good he is actually an Irishman. It’s also been among the worst of times, with Root leading the Test team like a novice, despite having done it, as the Cricinfo correspondent George Dobell pointed out, more times than Mike Brearley.
If Root was a football manager, he would have been fired 18 months ago. As it is, he has the backing of the boss of English cricket, Ashley Giles; last week, they even took the travelling press out for dinner. Now, after one more Test, Root will have a long flight home to work out what’s best for his team. If he looks in the mirror in the aeroplane bathroom, his eyes will surely tell him the answer. It’s time to go, Joe.
He should go for England’s sake. His batting average lately is 30 rather than the usual 50, so he’s costing his team 40 runs per Test. England need those runs and what comes with them: the calm presence, the boost to the batsman at the other end, the extra toil for their opponents. England don’t need Root’s captaincy, which ranges from tepid to vapid. This summer, he became the first England captain in 18 years to play the Australians at home and not win.
Root should go for his own sake too. As a batsman, he is the closest England have come to a modern great like Sachin Tendulkar of India. Tendulkar tried being captain of India, struggled, and settled for just being a demigod. The captaincy went to Sourav Ganguly, canny, dynamic, often irritating, and far better suited to the three facets of sporting leadership – being a chess player, a nanny and a politician.
Likeable but passive, Root is every bit as miscast as England’s previous Test captain, Alastair Cook. Last year, as Cook left the international stage, Theresa May gave him the silliest knighthood in cricket history, only to top it by handing one to Geoffrey Boycott. Root could yet be knighted too, but it won’t be for his captaincy. England should keep him in the team, and hand the top job to the man who has already proved, triumphantly, that he can do it: Morgan.
Tim de Lisle is a cricket writer for the Guardian and a former editor of Wisden.