Records now the target as Joe Root and England assemble for rebuild

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The phrase “former England Test captain Joe Root” is taking some getting used to, probably as much for the man himself as anyone else.

But that is where Root finds himself as England assemble at Lord’s today ahead of the First Test of the series against New Zealand, and the first of the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era.

There have been so many conversation topics in the build-up to a series that has not seen England overhaul their team, but could well lead to just that. How will Stokes fare as captain? Can the opening pair, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, justify the faith shown? Can Ollie Pope make it at No3? Can Ben Foakes, Craig Overton and Jack Leach cut the mustard? What will we see from the new faces, Harry Brook and Matty Potts? And what of the returning old guard of James Anderson and Stuart Broad?

Very little of that conversation has centred on Root, who resigned last month but remains England’s most important player, the best hope of a dysfunctional batting unit functioning. This could be a week of great celebration for Root, too; he is just 111 shy of 10,000 Test runs.

Stokes took the executive decision to return his great friend to his favoured No4 position and, after a healthy break with his young family, Root performed solidly for Yorkshire in the Championship and, more recently, the Vitality Blast, in which he was playing again yesterday, an indicator of his undying appetite for the game.

Root has kept his counsel since retiring and is not set to speak publicly before the Test. When he does, there will be no score settling, as he heads back into the ranks. Stokes can expect utter commitment from Root, who tweeted on the new appointment: “Always got each other’s backs, I’ll be right with you every step of the way.” England are yet to appoint a vice-captain for Stokes, but McCullum says Root will be an invaluable guide.

“You’ve got Rooty there with an immense amount of experience as a captain, and his ability to now fall into a leadership position without title is going to be a real key transition for him,” he said. “If we get that right it provides a nice layer of leadership around Stokesy.”

Root seems certain to buck a trend this century (or the central contracts era), where we see little more of England captains after their resignation.

Nasser Hussain resigned aged 35 in 2003 and played on for almost a year before making his final Test his final professional match. Michael Vaughan resigned in 2008 and played on for Yorkshire but never for England. In 2012, Andrew Strauss took things one step further, stepping down as captain and retiring from all cricket immediately. All three resigned during or at the end of series against Graeme Smith’s South Africa.

Stokes will be just the second Test captain Root has played under, after Alastair Cook. He had the longest stretch after stepping down. He was 32, a year older than Root is now, when he handed over to the Yorkshireman in 2017.

Cook completed two more summers and one more winter, with each season defined by one epic innings — 243 at Edgbaston, 244 not out at Melbourne, then that unforgettable farewell at The Oval — but plenty of lean times, too. In those 21 matches, Cook averaged just 38, down from 46.5 when he resigned the captaincy. When Cook retired, it was a shock, but he was burned out by the grind and scrutiny of international cricket. Since, he has enjoyed the quiet life in the shires, on the field with Essex and on his farm in Bedfordshire.

While Root and Cook were similar ages upon their resignations, they cut very different figures. Root captained England more than anyone, and admitted in his resignation release that it had taken a toll off the field.

He had the job at a very tricky time; he had the pandemic to contend with even before you consider the absurd schedule and the total collapse of his team-mates’ batting. But he is still churning out runs — eight centuries since the start of last year — and doing so with a smile on his face. He has fewer miles on the clock than Cook (140 Tests v 121), who was a more insular character, too.

Cook is the only other Englishman to have reach 10,000 runs (when he did, in 2016, it was a very big deal). Whether Root hauls it down this week or not, that is his job now: ticking off every batting record Cook set.

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