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Even as his team explored new depths, 2021 was the year that Joe Root’s status as one of England’s greatest Test batsmen became undeniable. He defied two constant foes - exceptional bowling and the unfailing mediocrity of his team-mates - to score six Test centuries.
Yet in a sense Root's burgeoning tally of 23 Test hundreds has only amplified the focus upon one country where he is yet to make a century. On one level, this reflects the worst of England’s Ashes obsession: the lingering notion that all other Test cricket is somehow secondary. But if Root did not make these rules, he is well aware of them, declaring that this series would define his captaincy before the first Test. For many, it would also determine how he would be viewed in the pantheon of English Test batsmanship.
Root has been England’s leading run-scorer and most consistent batsman this series: really, there was never any reason to expect anything else. But, after he succumbed for a seventh-ball duck on the third day in Sydney, cutting Scott Boland to second slip, he is now only averaging 36.1 this campaign.
In 13 Tests and 24 innings down under, he now averages 37.4, not converting any of his nine half-centuries into hundreds. To be sure, these remain bountiful riches set against the rest of the England batting line-up. Yet, such are the standards Root sets himself, that these returns invite the question of why his excellence elsewhere has not quite translated as well into Australia.
The simplest reason for Root’s relative struggles down under is what he has encountered. In 2013/14, 2017/18 and now 2021/22, he has been met by venomous and varied fast bowling - an attack that has included a phalanx of high quality right-arm quicks, one of the left-arm Mitchells, Johnson and then Starc, augmented by Nathan Lyon. Batting in Test cricket does not come much harder.
But, even given these challenges, Australian conditions are comparatively ill-suited to Root’s game. Down under, the type of bowling that Root does worse against is more prominent.
As a batsman Root veers between all-time great and merely very good, depending on whether he is facing spin or pace. He averages 66 against spin in Tests, and 44 against pace.
One of Root’s difficulties down under is that pace bowling matters more than normal. But an altogether bigger problem is the type of pace bowling: both taller and quicker than normal in Test cricket. In his Test career, Root averages 60 against deliveries released from shorter than two metres - showing his preference for skiddier bowlers, such as India’s attack - but 35 against pace deliveries released from two metres or higher. He also has a marked preference for bowling of slightly lesser speed. Root averages 49 against pace deliveries up to 85mph, but 37 against balls over 85mph.
His dismissal at Sydney was Root’s struggles down under in excelsis. Root had just played out a maiden from his first six balls; England had not scored for 42 deliveries. Boland bowled just short of a good length, getting the ball to seam away well outside off stump. The delivery posed no threat to the stumps, but one of Root’s hallmarks - one of the reasons that he is so good - is his proactivity at the crease.
On slower wickets in England, the guide through gully that Root attempted would have been a far safer shot. But in Sydney the extra bounce and pace meant that Root's steer only ended up in the hands of Steve Smith at second slip.
In Australia, Root’s penchant for playing at wide deliveries - even before he is set - imbues his innings with danger. England’s top three have heightened this vulnerability by exposing Root to the ball when it is new, and moves most off the seam.
None of Root’s dismissals this series have come from balls that would have hit the stumps; six have come from deliveries that he met well outside off stump, and he could probably have left alone. The edge off Boland was the seventh consecutive time this series that Root has been dismissed caught by the wicketkeeper or slips.
The statistical quirk is borne of Root’s reluctance to leave the ball. In the first 30 overs, while the ball is new, Root has left only 11% of deliveries this series. Australia’s top four have all left twice as many, suggesting that he has failed to match their discipline outside off stump.
England have much bigger problems than Root’s batting in Australia. Yet his failure to quite match his rarefied heights elsewhere has been a modest factor in England’s travails this tour - and, perhaps, a major bar to how Root’s ultimate legacy as a batsman is viewed.