• Max Parry

OPINION | ECB must heed lessons of history and replace Root

In the aftermath of the 2nd Test of the 1981 Ashes, England captain Ian Botham resigned having bagged the first and only pair he was ever to endure as an international cricketer. His tenure was calamitous both in terms of his own performances as well as that of the team; as captain he averaged less than 15 with the bat and over 34 with the ball, during which time England failed to record a single Test victory. The Selectors’ decision to appoint Botham was, in essence, justified on the grounds that he was a supreme talent, capable of inspiring greatness in those around him. However, his replacement, Mike Brearley – who had previously led the side from 1977 prior to Botham’s appointment - demonstrated that prowess with bat or ball wasn’t essential to successful captaincy.

Brearley, aged 39, took over stewardship of an England team losing the ’81 series one-nil after two Tests, and with their most valuable asset in Botham utterly bereft of form. Despite his own shortcomings with bat in hand, Brearley absorbed the burdens of captaincy that had plagued Botham, liberating the all-rounder to perform swashbuckling acts of cricketing wizardry, against which every match-turning triumph has since been measured. In short, it was the replacement of the masterful player but flawed captain with the masterful captain but flawed player, that enabled both to flourish, and England to win the series forever referred to as ‘Botham’s Ashes’.

Although there’s a whole raft of contrasts between England’s Test team in 2019 and the side that played under Botham, there’s a crucial similarity that they most certainly share: a captain unquestionably hampered by the demands of his role and a team suffering because of it.

As was the case almost 40 years ago, England must relieve their skipper of the onerous responsibilities of leadership and enable him to rediscover some personal form for the betterment of the team. From 2012-2016, prior to his appointment as captain of the Test side, Joe Root boasted an average of 52.80. A boyish grin seldom wiped from his face, he routinely made hefty contributions to England’s totals and was justly spoken of in the same breath as Smith, Kohli and Williamson. Yet, since succeeding Alastair Cook, Root’s average has been steadily declining; as captain he scores less than 40 per innings and astonishingly, below 30 in 2019. Viewing Root’s demise in the context of England’s inability to post a first innings score north of 400 in the last two years serves to consolidate the feeling that a change of leader is necessary.

However, any suggestion that the current squad is endowed with anything resembling outstanding captaincy material is fanciful. Stuart Broad, probably the most suitable of a thoroughly unsuitable bunch, is highly experienced but would likely be something of an impulse-driven, hot-headed sort of skipper. For the likes of Virat Kohli, such a leadership style can be justified by the consistency with which he sets the example for his teammates to follow – the same could not be said for Broad. Furthermore, the modicum of evidence from which to judge Broad’s captaincy doesn’t make favourable reading: 11 wins from 27 T20 internationals – next!

Rory Burns certainly has the potential to assume the role, however granting it to him now would appear something of a gamble given that he’s only recently established himself in the side. Let’s refrain from encumbering the Surrey man with a premature promotion.

Soon-to-be SPOTY Ben Stokes has also been touted, however the resemblance both in role and style between he and Botham is impossible to ignore. Giving Stokes the captaincy would presumably be on the basis of his skill as a player, rather than on the evidence of his abilities as a tactician and man-manager. As the Botham story (and for that matter the Flintoff story and Pietersen story) attests, simply handing the reigns to your most gifted individual risks curbing their talismanic capacity, as well as that of your team.

Jos Buttler is another that perhaps harbours hopes of the top job. Sure, he’s vice-captain of the ODI team but is still something of a novice when it comes to leadership. Furthermore, would you really want to wager his undeniably world-class talent, which we’ve only seen glimpses of on the Test circuit, by giving him the captaincy? I think not.

From the names within the squad that have been floated as possible heirs to Root’s throne, not one of them appears to be the natural leader the side is pining for. It seems sensible, therefore, to pursue a replacement for the Yorkshireman from outside of the current crop. In light of new coach Chris Silverwood’s desire to rebrand the Test team, perhaps it would be wise to appoint a player who has previously presided over an England side’s transformation of identity? However, the primary characteristics the ECB should be looking for in their new figurehead is an experienced and instinctive skipper, who can extricate the once-great Root from the challenges of the captaincy, enabling him to re-establish himself and the team amongst the world’s elite. Fortunately, there’s one candidate that has, in recent history, proven himself to be a rather adept Commander-in-Chief – Eoin Morgan.

Morgan has the potential to bring about a radical revival of the team’s form à la Brearley in ’81. Why? Because entrusting the stewardship of the side to the converted Englishman would create the possibility of a Bothamesque improvement in Root’s numbers, and with it collective scores of 400+ in the first innings.

I’m sure critics of such a perspective would cite the technical flaws that prevented Morgan from retaining his Test place in 2012, as well as the length of his absence from the side, as grounds upon which to dismiss any calls for his appointment. However, like Brearley before him, his primary function would not be as a run-scorer but as a facilitator of the match-winning performances of others. What’s more, although his hiatus from the longest form of the game is significantly greater than Brearley’s ever was, there are crucial differences in the Brearley-Morgan comparison that strengthen Morgan’s case. Morgan has a much higher average than Brearley (30.43 compared to 22.88), as well as more hundreds in fewer Tests (two in 16 matches compared to none in 39), and the Dubliner is still an international batsman of high esteem. In an era in which batting depth is considered essential, Eoin Morgan could be expected to supplement his role as Root’s liberator, with handy runs in the lower-middle-order.

In the eventuality that Morgan got the nod in the near future, Ollie Pope would likely find himself dropped. Tough on the youngster it would most certainly be, but a price worth paying to return Root to his best. Besides, Pope is but a young pup at 21 and thus has many years as an international cricketer ahead of him. Again, like Brearley, Morgan wouldn't be a long-term appointment but rather one that enables the next leader to emerge once he's ready - probably Burns.

As a tactician, the Middlesex stroke-maker is not in the same class as Brearley, but then again few are. However, he’s got a more than capable cricket brain, plus when you consider that he’s also managed to extract the sorts of performances from Jofra Archer that Root is currently unable to, appointing Morgan looks an even more attractive option.

As an incoming captain, Morgan also has experience in crisis-management. He was handed the ODI captaincy in the run-up to the shambolic 2015 World Cup campaign and oversaw a fundamental transformation in how England approached 50-over cricket. Granted, the Test team are not in crisis yet and the transformation they are attempting is a more conservative approach to batting, rather than the non-stop power-hitting adopted by Morgan’s World Cup winners. However, after the 2015 World Cup debacle, Morgan demonstrated that he’s perfectly capable of overcoming fierce criticism - something being endured by the current Test side - and instilled in his team a philosophy bought into by every player. Whether the philosophy is conservative or otherwise is not as relevant as the conviction with which the leader asks his players to carry it out. Morgan is about as highly respected a figure as any England player across any format, and a number of Test match regulars played under his leadership during the World Cup – surely he has the authority to take England in the direction Silverwood wants them to go?

Strong though Morgan’s case may be I would not anticipate his appointment, nor that of anyone else, in the near future. Managing Director of the ECB Ashley Giles has said that he expects Root to retain his position until the Ashes Down Under in 2021/22, and the Yorkshireman has denied his premiership is threatened. However, for the sake England’s long-term future, let us hope the ECB heed the lessons of history and replace Root with a leader who can re-elevate him back to the status of a premier Test batsman.

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