Ashes or not, Joe Root deserves a place in England’s pantheon of great captains

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‘The stats don’t lie’ is a phrase uttered with comic frequency by sports statisticians everywhere. And if it is true, then Joe Root should be widely recognised as England’s greatest Test captain. 

Having surpassed Michael Vaughan’s record of 26 Test wins by virtue of England’s comprehensive victory against India at Headingly last week, Root is statistically England’s most successful ever. And yet despite his unprecedented numbers, Root’s position in the pantheon of England’s greatest captains is up for more debate than the stats would imply. 

A bullish tweet published last week by Ben Stokes in which he described Root as ‘already the greatest…end of’ betrays that his opinion is not in the majority. 

Indeed, when asked in the afterglow of the third test triumph if Root was a great captain, England head coach Chris Silverwood responded amusingly: ‘I think he’s a good Test captain, yes’ before going on to highlight the opportunities for greatness offered by this winter’s tour to Australia. Here, Silverwood seemingly appears to agree with Michael Vaughan, who believes that Root cannot be considered England’s greatest until he wins the Ashes. 

As is often the case for the England Cricket team and the many thousands of people that follow them, it is the Ashes that are the pinnacle of the sport. That tiny, wooden urn is the Holy Grail. Performing against the Green Caps is seemingly the key ingredient in elevating a good England captain to a legendary status. 

On-field performance against Australia greatly overshadows all other merits and achievements.

Take Vaughan, England’s now second most successful captain. Not since 1986-87 had England triumphed against the Aussies, but in that heady summer of 2005, Vaughan led his team to an exhilarating 2-1 series victory remembered for a nail-biting two run win at England’s self-proclaimed midlands fortress Edgbaston. Some Flintoff fireworks and the size of the crowds that greeted the team in Trafalgar Square added to the celebrations.

In doing so he etched his name into England cricketing folklore forever. Andrew Strauss is remembered with a similar fondness for his team’s astounding 3-1 series win Down Under in 2010-11 in which all three of England’s victories were remarkably won by an innings. 

Such domination in Australia was and is still usually unheard of. Even Mike Brearley, widely regarded as one of the greatest captains of all time, saw his stock rise after the Miracle of Headingly in which Ian Botham and Bob Willis snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to save the 1981 Ashes series. 

The narrative seems clear cut. Seminal moments that win Ashes series are what make captains great. After two attempts Root is still yet to get his hands on that fabled urn, and so is often regarded as a class below the Ashes winning captains of years gone by.

But the problem with the English cricketing psyche being so obsessed with the Ashes is that on-field performance against Australia greatly overshadows all other merits and achievements.

As a result, Root’s legacy as a great captain will be judged, somewhat unfairly, on the sole results of five tests in Australia this winter – if they go ahead that is. To do so would be criminal because it neglects all Root’s team have achieved on the field, but more importantly all he has brought off it.

Much like England football manager Gareth Southgate, Root is a statesman-like figure for England and by virtue of his exemplary character has attempted to carry English cricket into modernity. 

Cricket is a game with elitist roots and whilst there is still much to do to make the game as diverse as possible, Root has forged his own path, trying to make the England dressing room specifically and the game in general as open an environment as possible so that all feel welcomed.

Never before have England had a figurehead of this ilk.

When Shannon Gabriel used a homophobic comment to sledge Root in St Lucia in 2019, the England captain responded with perfect simplicity: ‘Don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay’.

And when it was revealed that talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes was taking a break from cricket to prioritise his mental health, Root responded with compassion, saying ‘I just want my friend to be okay’. Such a response was to be expected from Root since he frequently encourages his teammates to speak about their feelings before high pressure matches.

Root has also frequently spoken out about racism. Last summer he and West Indies captain Jason Holder agreed that both their sides would wear the Black Lives Matter logo on their collars and take the knee before the start of play in response to the death of George Floyd.

When asked about Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism at Yorkshire Cricket Club – Root’s club side – the England captain said it was ‘difficult to see [his ex-teammate] hurting as he is’. 

Examples of Root’s commendable character and exemplary behaviour as a leader are many and frequent. Never before have England had a figurehead of this ilk, who is held in such high esteem both within cricket and without.  

Judging sportsmen based on results is natural in a sporting world where performance is key. But to truly appreciate Root’s greatness, we need to move past the fact he may never win an Ashes. 

What transpires this winter should not come to define Root’s legacy, no more so than his record-breaking numbers. Root’s twenty-seven wins is a statistic that makes him England’s best, but ultimately that is just a number. It is his laudable character and compassion in leadership that really makes him England’s greatest.

Image: Ben Sutherland via flickr

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