Ben Jones reflects on the recent poor form of England’s Test skipper, and traces his struggles back to a key technical alteration.
People don’t appreciate Joe Root.
At the age of 27, he is already a historical great, with more Test runs than Denis Compton, Jack Hobbs and Michael Vaughan, to name but a few. In the last 50 years, not one English batsman has a higher Test average than Root.
With all that considered, by Root’s own high standards he is going through a lean patch. It’s now over 12 months since he last made a Test century, totalling 24 innings without passing the hundred mark. Something is wrong.
In particular, something is wrong with the way he is playing pace bowling. In 2018, he’s averaging more against spin than he has ever done before in a calendar year, but against pace it’s his lowest averaging year in the last five.
Partly, this may be a result of the conditions Root has played in this year. Australia, New Zealand and England are arguably three of the four best places to bat against spin, certainly compared to anywhere in Asia, and they’re countries which generally provide help for seamers and swing bowlers. It’s reasonable to have a middling record in those conditions.
The issue is that Root’s middling record against pace has actually lasted beyond this year. In his purple patch across 2014 and 2015, he averaged 58.56 against seam bowlers; since then, he’s averaged 46.72. It’s a drop off from a high point – but it’s still a drop off.
Specifically, Root has begun to struggle significantly against full pitched deliveries, those balls pitching 6m or less away from the batsman’s stumps. Since 2016, his record against those deliveries is around half as good as all other seam bowling. That is a clear weakness.
For some critics, that is no surprise. The sight of Root driving rather too loosely at full and wide balls outside off stump feels familiar; indeed before 2016, 39% of Root’s dismissals against full deliveries were the result of attacking shots, but since then has risen to 52%.
However, it’s not those wider full deliveries which are causing the most concern, but rather the straighter, more immediately threatening ones. To a remarkable degree, Root’s record against deliveries which would have gone on to hit his stumps has plummeted in the last two and a half years.
This is a substantial problem. Not because an average of 17.18 is particularly poor – 14.72 is the average for top order players – but because for a long time, Root’s dominance of those deliveries was nothing short of exceptional. In the decade previous to 2016, nobody averaged more against those deliveries than the Yorkshireman. For a while, playing those balls was Root’s superpower.
But now he’s a mere mortal, and it represents a blow to his Test match supremacy. He’s been dismissed 11 times since the start of 2016 to balls on the stumps from seamers, the same as Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith combined. Why, after 66 Test innings, and a technique arguably built on dominating this primary threat, has Root lost his superpower?
With this kind of quandary, there are generally two basic options; either something has changed in Root’s batting technique, or something has changed in the bowling strategies of the opposition.
Let’s consider the former. Since 2016, the point where Root’s record began to drop off, there has been one significant technical change to his batting strategy. The Yorkshireman has always been a strong player off the back foot, his signature shot being the flourishing back-foot punch through extra cover, but over time his weight has increasingly been drawn further and further back. In the past two years he hasn’t faced many more short balls, but he has significantly upped the number of back foot shots that he plays. As it stands, his method involves going back almost as often as he goes forward.
This is no bad thing. The increased use of the shot has been successful, his back foot strokes since 2016 averaging 61.20, compared to 55.75 previously. Root is now a better player off the back foot than he was at the start of his career.
This is likely the result of Root’s altered set-up. Compared to earlier in his career, his stance and backlift look more natural, more immediately impressive. The images below show Root during the 2014 India series on the left, and the 2018 India series on the right. His backlift is now much higher and straighter, more naturally suited to a back-foot game and giving him increased access to the off-side – but with a slower reaction time to fuller balls on his pads.
The last point is important. Of the top five most back-footed top order players in recent times, just one has an above average record against balls on their stumps from the seamers. Hanging back is a technical impediment to success against full and straight bowling.
So what drove Root to alter his set-up and limit his effectiveness in his strongest area? For this, you have to give credit to the bowlers. Since the start of 2016, the average delivery from a seamer to Root is 5cm wider than it was before; the number of deliveries wide outside the off stump has gone from 21% to 27%. Aware of Root’s early prowess against straighter deliveries, bowlers moved wider, running away from his strength.
This was a short term approach. As with all top-class batsmen, Root was able to adapt, and as he has faced more of this kind of bowling, he has improved against it. Where he used to struggle, he now dominates.
Up to 2016, 40% of Root’s runs against pace came through point; since then, it’s been 45%. That doesn’t sound like much, but given how many runs Root does make, it’s a fair old swing. The improved access to the off-side offered by his higher backlift and increased back-foot tendency has allowed Root to succeed against this ever more present line of attack.
Indeed, Root’s new stance does seem to have given him confidence to play at more deliveries. The graphic below illustrates the areas where Root leaves deliveries from seamers – as shown by the scale on the right-hand side, the green areas are where he never leaves and the purple is where he always leaves. In the last 18 months, there is very little purple. Very few areas are off limits to Root now.
The flipside of this improved off-side access is that his record against the swinging ball has transformed. Root used to fare considerably better against in-swing bowling compared to away-swing, a preference which has now completely reversed.
This reversal is evident in other areas of his game as well. Root may have announced himself to the devout cricketing fan when he made 73 (229) in Nagpur, but the general cricketing public was first introduced to Root in the 2013 Ashes. Opening the batting, Root made a magnificent 180 at Lord’s, a defining contribution as England went 2-0 up in the series. Aside from that huge contribution, he struggled, with six scores of less than 20 in his next seven innings. In other words, he rarely got in, but when he did, he made it count.
Contrast that with the Root we see today, a man plagued by getting in and getting out. Of the 126 players to have made 10 Test centuries, Root has the third worst conversion rate of all time. He repeatedly does the hard part, before being sent packing. From the man of the 2013 Ashes series, Root has performed something of a 180° turn.
Indeed, that mantra is broadly applicable to Root’s whole game. He used to dominate straight bowling, now he dominates wide bowling. He used to dominate inswing, now he dominates outswing. He used to have a low, angled backlift, now it’s high and straight. He used to get in and make big tons, now he relentlessly makes fifties. In a very literal sense, Root is not the batsman he once was.
Perhaps there is the issue. The intangible elements in play for things like poor conversion rates can often stem back to the mindset of the player. Root is more than talented enough, and surrounded by enough skilled coaches, to overcome any technical issue he may develop. That’s not in question. But it isn’t outlandish to suggest that the mental intensity required to move away from his natural game is affecting Root’s ability to convert, to play at his own pace and to feel completely set once he passes fifty.
Of course, England already have one senior batsman who’s rather too feast-or-famine for his own good; they don’t need another. But if Root could manage to return to a technique which perhaps felt more natural, more sustainable throughout a long innings, then his brief slump could be arrested. With a win at Southampton enough to give England a series win over the world No.1 Test side, now wouldn’t be a bad time at all for Root to rediscover his superpower.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.