Joe Root keen for Ashes without captaincy as he looks to improve record against Australia

Joe Root keen for Ashes without captaincy as he looks to improve record against Australia

The last time England won the men’s Ashes, Joe Root walked away with the Compton-Miller Medal as the player of the series. It was also the last time he played Australia without the burden of captaincy.

Back in 2015, Root’s 460 runs at an average of 57.50 helped England to a 3-2 scoreline to regain the urn. It was comfortably the most productive of Root’s six Ashes to date, and the last time he scored one of his three Test hundreds against an Australian attack.

Victory over Ireland by 10 wickets at Lord’s did not just mark a year of Bazball but a year since Root returned to the pack after handing the reins to Ben Stokes. After an engaging 56 in a mammoth first innings of 524 for 4 declared, the former skipper can now look ahead to locking horns with Australia, starting in 12 days’ time at Edgbaston, with a little less on his plate.

“It’s going to be nice to just go and play the game and try and assist where I can for Ben and for the other guys around,” Root said. “Play a slightly different senior role in the team.

“They’re always great fun to be a part of – these big games, big series. They’re the ones you want to stand up and play well and it’s just an opportunity to do that again.”

The last 12 months have been a combination of relief and re-discovery for the 32-year-old. Physically and emotionally shot by the time he stepped down as captain in April of last year – as much down to marshalling England through a pandemic as a final run of just one win in 17, including a 4-0 loss in Australia – Root began life under Stokes and Brendon McCullum with the enthusiasm of a man set free.

In the first four matches of the new era, he struck three centuries – two against New Zealand and one against India. While merely an extension of long-held form having come into the summer with eight hundreds since the start of 2021, there was a return to the impishness of old which had seemingly been lost. Nothing typified that more than adding a front-on lap sweep over the slips to an otherwise traditional batting repertoire.

Then came a sticky patch brought about by some overthinking around his role as England continued to push the envelope. Seven Tests – three at home to South Africa, three in Pakistan and the opener of a two-match series in New Zealand – saw him average 22 across 11 innings, with just two half-centuries.

Normal service resumed in Wellington – 153 not out and 95 in the one-run defeat – to go with fifty against Ireland as he went past 1000 runs (at 61.94) since relinquishing captaincy. He also became the second Englishman after Alastair Cook to move beyond 11,000 Test runs.

Reflecting on the last year, Root said he regarded a clearer headspace as the biggest positive. Something aided further by the improvement in fortunes under Stokes, who now boasts 11 wins out of 13.

“There will be a lot more attention, there will be a lot more noise, there will be a lot more hype. There will be people that might not normally be interested in cricket very interested in cricket for 5 or 6 weeks”

Joe Root on the Ashes experience

“I think my batting has been fine for a while,” Root said. “But mentally, just to be able to just turn up and play and have fun. Just chat batting with some of the younger guys. Obviously, try and help out where I can.

“Ben knows what he’s doing. He’s got enough behind him now to give himself the encouragement and confidence to make those big calls on his own, as you’d expect him to anyway. He’s doing a far better job than I did.”

Next week, the squad will travel to Loch Lomond in Scotland for some team bonding (ergo – golf) as a last hurrah before knuckling down for five Tests in less than seven weeks. Even with just one innings so far this summer, Root feels primed for the challenge that awaits.

When he walked out to the crease against Ireland at 360 for 2, it had been 94 days since his last action against the red ball – the final day of the second Test in New Zealand, at the end of February.

Instead of starting the season with Yorkshire, he opted for the IPL, spending his first time at the tournament warming the bench for Rajasthan Royals. Even though he batted just once (10 off 15 against Royal Challenges Bangalore) and sent down two overs against Kolkata Knight Riders, he has no regrets. Though he regards Championship cricket as “the bedrock of our domestic game”, he believes he is at a stage where it holds no real benefit for him.

“For where I am in my career, am I going to learn more about myself in that environment? Am I really going to be prepared better for an Ashes series facing lower-pace bowling on some nibbly wickets, when hopefully we will play on good pitches against high pace and a high-quality spinner? I don’t think so.

“By going there [to India], learning and experiencing something new, talking and discussing the game with some of the greats, like Kumar Sangakkara and Brian Lara, other players and ex-players, about just batting in general, Test cricket. I thought that not just for the Ashes, but the rest of the year, for me, would set me up best to perform well and get the best out of myself.”

Root anticipates his work in the Ashes won’t solely be with bat in hand. Something which became an even bigger reality on Sunday when left-arm spinner Jack Leach was ruled out of the Ashes with a back stress fracture.

Stokes has been keen to utilise Root’s part-time spin during his tenure, and gave him 10 overs in Ireland’s second innings. The pair combined for Root’s sole dismissal as Curtis Campher swept around the corner to Stokes.

While Root enjoys bowling, he hopes any involvement with the ball is tactical rather than to cover as an allrounder if Stokes’ left knee continues to hamper his ability to operate as a fourth seamer. Stokes even jarred his knee taking the catch to remove Campher but insisted after the match he would be fine to bowl at Edgbaston.

“Ben seems to be making sure he will be absolutely as ready as he possibly can be. If required to bowl, they [Australia] have a few left-handers in their side. If it starts to spin a bit, I might get a few overs here and there.”

Typically, Root stopped short of making any bold predictions for the Ashes, shouldering arms when asked if he wanted to provide a headline of his own after teammate Ollie Robinson stated his desire to give Australia “a good hiding”.

“I try not to get too involved in that,” Root said. “I feel like it can come back and bite you on the arse.”

Any talking he does will be done behind closed doors. That he is a veteran of 29 Ashes Tests amid an exciting group of batters is all the more important heading into the next couple of months. For instance, Ben Duckett and Harry Brook have no previous experience against Australia at this level. Likewise, bowlers Matthew Potts and newly capped Josh Tongue.

Root’s advice heading into his seventh Ashes is for them to remain level ahead of a defining period that will resonate well beyond this summer.

“Most importantly, is not to over-egg it,” said Root. “And that’s probably one of the things that you have to keep in mind.

“There will be a lot more attention, there will be a lot more noise, there will be a lot more hype around it. There will be people that might not normally be interested in cricket very interested in cricket for 5 or 6 weeks.

“It’s the same game. As soon as the bowler lets go of it, it’s you against the ball. Just go and play as you’ve been playing for the last 12 months. And when it goes well, enjoy everything that comes with it.

“If you’re successful in Ashes cricket it can set you up for life really, not just the rest of your career but beyond it. It’s an opportunity to go and make history and hopefully have an incredible two months of it as a group.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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