It is a question that hangs like the sword of Damocles over any English captain. Can they be considered a big one if they didn’t lead their side to an Ashes win?
Certainly, it’s a pertinent poser for Joe Root after he became, statistically speaking, the best England captain of them all by taking the lead in his 27th Test win.
And it’s now even more pertinent – with another key series against India standing 1-1 for the fourth Test – following the opinion of the England captain whose record Root took, his hero and Sheffield fellow Michael Vaughan.
England captain Joe Root is focused on beating India in the fourth Test, which starts on Thursday
SO, HOW ROOT ROOT AMONG ENGLAND SKIPPERS?
Joe Root is second only to Sir Alastair Cook in all-time runs as England captain, 217 behind with 4,627 to Cook’s 4,844.
His next goal will be to soar up the charts for skipper performance in the Ashes – he currently ranks sixth in the batting averages list for those who lead at least five Ashes tests after the war:
It was after Root’s record win at Headingley on Saturday that Vaughan suggested that his protégé could only be considered a great captain if he lifts the urn. And it was an opinion pretty much backed up by England coach Chris Silverwood when he said Root is a good captain with the potential to be a great captain.
Vaughan made a valid point. After all, like it or not, the Ashes brand is bigger than ever and it’s against Australia that true greatness is still judged. The Ashes are the Olympics of cricket and bigger than any white ball world cup.
Root not winning the Ashes as captain would be a bit like a golfer with a hugely successful career, like Lee Westwood, who is not considered a great talent because he has never won a major.
There are cricket comparisons. Mike Gatting only won two Tests as England captain, but as they were both against Australia and won an Ashes, he has been able to dine with them ever since. In Gatting’s case, that’s a lot of food.
And would Mike Brearley be regarded as one of the best of all England captains if his best hour had not come, with considerable help from Ian Botham and Bob Willis, against Australia in the legendary Ashes of 1981?
Root can be considered a real big hitter after six Test hundreds already this year
Joe Root has a total of eight centuries against India, equal to Ricky Ponting, Viv Richards, Steve Smith and Garry Sobers. One more becomes the record for hundreds against India.
Root has of course been part of two winning Ashes teams, but he lost heavily in his first lead against Australia before failing again at home when the old foe held the urn in a draw two years ago.
He will get his third and certainly last chance this winter, if Australia’s harsh quarantine permits, this winter and it is in that series that Root’s captaincy will be judged no matter what happens against India in the Oval from tomorrow and in the final Test at Old Trafford.
Carrot knows too. “I think as England captain you are always judged a bit by how you do in Ashes cricket,” he said yesterday.
“First I have to make sure we win this series against India, but Australia is something we have been planning for a long time.
Root claimed a record-breaking 27th test win at Headingley in the third test against India
“It’s definitely something everyone wants to do, go to Australia and win, as captain or as a player.
“It’s something you’re desperately looking for in your career. But in terms of what other people think of me as a captain, it’s a bit irrelevant. It is my job to do my job as well as possible for the period that I have the role.
“I will continue to give everything to the team and if that is not enough for some people, at the end I still did everything I can and I can be proud of that.”
Root will never be in the Brearley form of tactically astute captains. It’s hard to imagine Brearley, for example, or many England captains making the same mistakes Root made on Lord’s last day in the field against Indians Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah.
Few England captains have set a better example than Root and few could have been as popular with his team as a man who took sole responsibility for that second test cock-up and then saw his players react fantastically in Leeds.
Michael Vaughan suggested that Root cannot be considered a great captain until he lifts the urn
It’s as a batsman that Root can now be considered a real great after three superb hundreds in the last three Tests and six in total this year. And it is his clout rather than his leadership that is integral to England’s destiny.
Root was asked yesterday what he liked most about his golden form. “My decision-making,” he said. “I’ve managed the whole series of innings and that’s going to be the challenge at the Oval again.
“I feel like I have a nice balance between attack and defense at the moment, and I’m picking up the length reasonably well. Those are the things that stand out and hopefully I can continue that for the rest of this series and beyond.”
Ahead, of course, is Australia and Root may still have to try and earn that captaincy with one hand tied behind his back. Last week it was reported that at least 10 England players are deeply concerned about the Covid-related conditions in Australia which could force not only them but their families into an unacceptably harsh quarantine.
Root was part of two winning Ashes sides, but he lost heavily in his first lead lead
“We are still in talks with the ECB and we are waiting for more information from Cricket Australia,” Root said.
“Until we get that, we need to focus on this series and make sure it doesn’t become a distraction. There’s still a lot to think about.’
Root thus faces the very real prospect of taking on Australia in their own backyard, the most difficult of all assignments for an England captain, with a second-choice squad. If the Ashes continues at all.
“There are a few things we can spare at this point,” said one captain who has dealt with more than most in the past 18 months.
“It’s just the way it is and you have to follow it in your footsteps. Sometimes things like this can bring you closer as a group and create a strong bond. Hopefully we can all use this to our advantage.”
If Root can pull that off and lead England to success against India, starting at the Oval on Thursday, and then Australia, he will truly be the greatest of them all.