2016 was full of surprising news. We had Trump, Brexit and innumerable celebrities passing from this mortal coil earlier than we would have hoped. Many would have been hoping for a more sedate 2017. The apocryphal Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”, was never more resonant than last year.
English cricket has provided some of that unsurprising news that we had hoped for over the last few weeks. First, Alastair Cook stood down as England’s Test captain. It was time for him to go, and it was clear as a dejected looking man gave weary post-match interviews in India that he was spent.
The second piece of predictable news was that Joe Root has been appointed as his successor. The truth is that he has been England’s next captain since Andrew Strauss made him vice-captain in 2015 in one of his first decisions as England’s “Director, Cricket”. All too often in the past England’s succession planing has been like a mad rush to the toilet when food poisoning strikes. This time there was a clear plan for when Cook stood down.
Strauss met with Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes, as well as Root, to discuss captaincy options, but that appears to have been a tick-box exercise as much as anything else. It was always Root, and that is the right call. An automatic selection for the team, hugely respected by his teammates and opponents, one of the best batsmen in the world. He was the obvious choice and has been for years. Of those that are in the side, he was the only real option. Broad is a member of the old guard, Stokes is far too fiery and emotionally charged for the cerebral job of Test captaincy, although he will be Root’s vice-captain.
Root does not have a great deal of captaincy experience. Much has been made of his performance as captain when Yorkshire failed to defend to defend 472 against Middlesex at Lord’s in 2014. A topsy-turvy game saw both sides score less than 200 in their first innings before the pitch flattened out drastically. Chris Rogers scored 241 not out as Middlesex emerged victorious by seven wickets.
Speaking about that game in 2015, Root told the Telegraph that he got a lot of grief from his county colleagues for overseeing such a horrendous loss.
“I did get the nickname 'craptain’ at the end of the year from the Yorkshire dressing room – a bit of banter which I thought was quite funny, but that game isn’t something that’s going to faze me.”
In that same interview, Root was asked what kind of captain he would be. He said he had “no idea”.
“I will have to do it to find out. I like to think I will be quite aggressive and relaxed, as well, and think on my feet,” he said.
And he is right. We won’t know what kind of England captain he will be until he does the job. But he is a much more relaxed and phlegmatic character than Cook. While Cook’s time in charge was one of introspection and turmoil, not least because of Kevin Pietersen, Root is much more likely to look like he is having fun when he is playing cricket. His impish nature can either be endearing or irritating, depending on your viewpoint.
Root has certainly taken a more proactive leadership role in recent times. When Cook has left the field, he has taken charge and felt confident to make changes. In the recently concluded tour of India, he brought himself on to bowl when Cook was absent and immediately claimed two wickets with his occasional off-spin. That he is willing to try something different is an exciting prospect. For so long England have been captained in a paint-by-number way. Someone who is happy to have a punt and see what happens will be a new experience for those of us who watch England regularly.
There was talk of Root being given the captaincy of all of England’s teams. He is a regular in Tests, ODIs and T20s so England could have returned to having one man doing all of the jobs. This was always unlikely. England have succeeded with a clean delineation between red and white ball cricket, and Eoin Morgan as captain of the 20 and 50-over sides has done a fine job of rejuvenating a stagnating limited overs setup that was so badly embarrassed at the 2015 World Cup. There is no reason to change something that is working.
There will be an inevitable honeymoon period for Root. He will not take the field in a Test match until July when England play South Africa. Even once he actually gets to play a game of cricket as England’s captain he will be given some slack if things do not go his way. While English football may chop and change its leaders, English cricket is far more reluctant. There have been just five permanent England Test captains since the start of the 21st Century, and only Kevin Pietersen was removed from his post. The rest all departed when the time was right for them.
Root could struggle at home against South Africa and the West Indies and still have support from fans and the media. The real test of his leadership will be when England tour Australia for the Ashes this winter. Failure there and questions will be asked.
But failure is far from the most likely outcome of Root as England captain. Every time Root has been tested in his international career he has succeeded. It would be foolish to think he couldn’t rise to this challenge.