Ben Jones analyses the England skipper’s problem with converting 50s into 100s.
Joe Root is an all-time England great. Only two Englishman to have made as many Test runs as him can boast a superior average – those two batsmen are Wally Hammond and Len Hutton. Esteemed companions, if ever there were.
So why doesn’t he make hundreds?
This is an exaggeration, of course. Root has 16 Test tons, an immense effort given that many were made in tough conditions against elite attacks, in an era where ball dominates bat like we haven’t seen in generations.
Yet if you ask the average cricket fan to assess Root in one line, as soon as they have mentioned his excellence, they’ll likely turn to his difficulty turning starts into centuries – and with good reason. In the history of Test cricket, there have been 129 players to notch up 10+ centuries over the course of their careers. Of those 129, only five have a worse conversion rate than Root.
It’s strange that a player of Root’s ability is going on to make a century only once every four times he passes fifty. When you compare that to the other members of ‘The Big Four’ (a dubious term but one used enough to warrant examination), you see what an outlier Root’s conversion rate is; if Steve Smith or Virat Kohli pass 50, they’re more likely to make a century than not.
There are lots of theories surrounding the issue. Some have suggested that it’s an issue of mental fatigue, a completely understandable consequence of his punishing all-format schedule. Others have been less sympathetic, instead blaming Root’s more aggressive intent, an eagerness to score which leaves him vulnerable to loose shots. Some have gone so far as to actually question Root’s ability as a batsman. Of course, ability does come into it – making hundreds is, put simply, harder than making fifties – but Root gets to 50 so regularly that questioning his skill feels like going down a blind alley.
So really – why does Root struggle to convert?
Well, first of all it’s fair to say that converting in England is hard. Since 2000, New Zealand and Zimbabwe are the only countries in the world with a lower conversion rate for all batsmen, than England. Root may have individual issues, but it’s important to acknowledge that he’s working in tough conditions.
With that in mind, how much does the caricature of Root actually hold up? Let’s look at the idea of him being “loose”. On the face of it, there’s no real evidence that he plays with any greater risk than the average batsmen; he edges or misses the ball almost exactly as often as you would expect. It’s a little surprising for a player of his calibre, but it’s by no means a genuine concern.
However, that false shot percentage doesn’t fluctuate particularly over the course of an innings; regardless of how many balls he’s faced, Root never appears to be properly in. His false shot percentage never rises far above that overall average of 13.3%, even when he’s just arrived at the crease, but it never drops too far below either. He seems to bat with a similar level of risk throughout his innings.
When you compare this to those other elite batsmen, the issue becomes particularly clear. During the first 180 balls Root faces, his false shot percentage is well above that of Kohli and co. After then, his record aligns itself with the others, but it seems to take him far longer to get “set” at the crease than his colleagues.
Again, there could be context around this. The majority of Root’s test career has been played in England against a Dukes ball, in tough conditions for batting. As shown below, more false shots are played in England than the average throughout the innings; in this light, it’s understandable that his false shot percentage remains higher, for longer.
However, the other implication in the word “loose” is the idea that Root is too attacking – and this may give greater indication for why he rarely looks well set. Root is, indeed, a fair bit more attacking than the average batsman, attacking 27% of deliveries in Tests compared to the average of 23%. Equally, he rotates the strike more than most top level players in this format, as shown below – Root’s intent to score is greater than other players of similar ability. He’s busy.
Yet he isn’t particularly loose when he’s attacking. When Root plays an attacking stroke, he averages 65.64 runs-per-dismissal; that’s good, given that a typical top six batsman playing those same strokes averages 58.47. It suggests a solid judgement of which balls he should attack, and the ability to execute those strokes.
However, this judgement and ability rises and falls considerably throughout his time in the middle.
By comparing Root to that elite group (plus the oft-neglected Cheteshwar Pujara), we can see that when he’s starting his innings the England captain mixes it with the best. En route to his half-century, Root’s attacking shots average roughly as many runs-per-dismissal as these other top class batsmen.
And yet, as we know, the issue for Root comes after he’s reached that half-century; at this point, the records diverge. Root goes from averaging 85 with his attacking strokes, to averaging 45.
A fall of some kind seems to be understandable. Pujara’s restraint allows his average to remain flawless, but everyone else’s record takes a hit. The problem for Root is that for him the size of the hit, a drop of 40 runs-per-dismissal, is only comparable to Williamson, whose average was much better to start with.
It appears that this is the most obvious difference between Root and the genuine elite. In that period between the two landmarks, he gets out playing attacking shots far, far more regularly than other top class batsmen. That’s the problem.
If we try to look beyond the data, you could infer that this is the result of fatigue – both mental and physical. Root has expressly stated that he wants to play attacking cricket, but he has also shown that, when fresh and at his best, this is blended with exceptional shot selection, knowing which balls he’s capable of dispatching and which he isn’t. It feels fair to assert that during particularly dense periods, that judgement falls away.
This isn’t an attack on Root in the slightest, just an attempt to explain an odd aspect of an excellent player’s record. His average is excellent, his contributions consistent albeit dwindling slightly of late. His 77 in the chase at Headingley shows that even when he doesn’t reach those personal milestones, he is regularly doing top class work for his team.
With that caveat, you still suspect that if Root could maintain a little more of that early circumspection, he could become even better than he already is, and get back on that level he was working at when ‘The Big Four’ nomenclature first arrived. That’s what is at stake here, for all in English cricket – squeezing every last run out of a special talent and a top class performer.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.