Ashes: Series might be gone but Joe Root has unfinished business in Sydney ahead of Fourth Test

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Ashes: Series might be gone but Joe Root has unfinished business in Sydney ahead of Fourth Test
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  • Joe Root
    Joe Root
    English cricketer (born 1990)

Joe Root has played Test cricket at 42 venues across the world. At only one, Hamilton’s Seddon Park, does he average more than he does at the Sydney Cricket Ground – 141.

But for Root, none of those 42 grounds represent unfinished business quite like the SCG. He has been here twice before, and left disconsolate and dispirited on both occasions.

In 2014, at the tail end of a whitewash, Root was dropped in Sydney. A few days past his 23rd birthday, 13 months and 15 matches into his Test career, he was taken out of the line of fire in an Ashes series that had seen his returns diminish after an impressive, defiant 87 in Adelaide. Sydney remains the only time he has been dropped by England, and one of just two matches he has missed since his debut.

Four years later, he was not just in the team, but captaining it. Again, a difficult Ashes tour was coming to a close. England were thrashed in Sydney, by an innings and 123 runs, but the wheels had never quite come off the wagon as they have on other drubbings down under.

In Sydney, Root had a curious game. He made a fizzing 83 on day one, only to give his wicket away late in the day. On day four, in truly stifling heat, he batted beautifully too, reaching 42 by stumps as England set about trying to save the game. On the final morning of the series, news emerged that Root was unwell, so unwell that he had spent time in hospital, having contracted a gastro bug at his son Alf’s first birthday party.

He did groggily make it to the crease, adding 16 to his overnight score by lunch. In the break, he slept in the changing rooms, covered in towels as his team-mates tip-toed around him. He was not well enough to return to the crease, and without him England inevitably lost. His vice-captain James Anderson attended the post-match presentations; Root was fortunate, therefore, to miss the vulgar hands Cricket Australia – careering towards a nadir of a culture of arrogance – used to toast their victory.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

So it is not just the terrible state of this Ashes series that leaves Root desperate for success at the third attempt.

He arrives frustrated. First with himself; he has fifties in half his innings and has top-scored in half his innings, but has not been able to make any of them the match-defining scores that characterised his 2021. He has also fallen six times caught behind the wicket. Most of all he is frustrated with the performance of his team, who find themselves 3-0 down.

Root has used his own experience in Sydney to help the youngsters in this group return better. Some, he says, have reached out for advice. It might be most relevant for Ollie Pope, out of the side right now too, despite so much hype.

“I remember being left out, how upset I was, how angry I was,” he says. “You learn lessons from that.”

Those lessons? “I spent that whole time trying to get better playing off the front foot, we were facing Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris bowling 90mph relentless pace,” he said.

“I’m trying to get into the ball when I should be looking at making my back foot game as strong as it possibly could be – that’s how I scored my runs, that’s how I’ve always set up to counter fast bowling. That was a harsh lesson I learned throughout that tour. I went away thinking, yeah, I need to chip away at certain areas of my game but ultimately I need to make my strengths as strong as they can be.”

It worked, instantly. In 2014, he averaged 97 from seven Tests, and 2015 it was 60 from 14; in all, for four years from the start of 2014 until the end of 2017, his average was 58. After a couple of quieter years as captain, Root rediscovered that form in 2021, averaging north of 60 once more, with six centuries.

Responsibility has weighed heavily on Root on this tour, not least the knowledge that his wicket carries so much weight. Equally, that means putting his own Sydney story right will go a very long way for his beleaguered team.

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