Joe Root shows why he is still England’s key man despite new-found batting depth

It is six and a half years since the late, great Martin Crowe anointed Test cricket’s fab four.

The former New Zealand batsman highlighted Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root as the four batsmen who would go on to dominate in the longest format, suggesting they would essentially take turns as the world’s No 1 ranked player.

As predictions go, it was a pretty good one. In the time that has elapsed since then, all four have enjoyed a spell at the top of the ICC’s Test batting standings and currently Williamson leads the way, with Smith second and Kohli third.

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Root though, has dropped out of the top 10. Last year was the first since making his debut in which he did not record a Test hundred.

In truth, Test hundreds have not been as regular an occurrence as they once were for Root in recent times. Even the fifties have dried up, although we have long since passed the point where it is inevitable that we will be discussing his conversion rate forever more.

He may have reached 50 more often in Test cricket than any of Smith, Williamson and Kohli but despite playing more games than the other three, he has the fewest centuries, and it is that frustrating habit of failing to turn fifties into hundreds that had seen Root drop of out the fab four, even before his relative slump over the past 18 months.

It is also why it was so important that he returned to form with his 18th Test century on day two in Galle.

England are at the start of a blockbuster year of Test cricket, in which they could play as many as 17 matches and face each of the top three teams in the world – India, New Zealand and Australia.

As captain, Root’s leadership over the next 12 months will be important but what England need most from him this year is runs.

“It is so vital in this year that Joe Root has started well,” said former England captain Nasser Hussain.

“He hadn’t fallen off a cliff, he was averaging 48 in Test match cricket so he was still a fine player. But just with the year ahead, it buys him some time so that if he does have a couple of poor games, no one is talking about his batting.”

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Ben Stokes has shown himself to be a world-class Test batsman over the past couple of years and, when he returns, can help shoulder some of the burden that has been on Root.

Dan Lawrence’s assurance in his debut innings, scoring 73, suggested that he can be added to the names of Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley to a core of talented young England players capable of succeeding in Test cricket.

Meanwhile, Jonny Bairstow showed enough on day one to ensure he will remain in the conversation when the selectors are putting together a squad for India, Rory Burns will be back in the mix by then too, Jos Buttler had a fine summer with the bat and Ben Foakes excelled the last time England were in Sri Lanka too.

In the space of18 months, England have gone from having a top-order generously described as fragile to having real depth in their batting ranks. When everyone is fit and available, there are going to be some difficult decisions to make and some good players left carrying the drinks.

As Root swept Sri Lanka into submission on Friday though, it was blindingly obvious just why he remains the centrepiece of it all. On more than one occasion during the day’s play Mike Atherton described him as being “a class apart” – and he was.

On an ever-deteriorating surface, he was a batsman in complete control. A slow outfield meant the 254 balls he faced brought only 12 boundaries but the scoreboard never stood still and Root’s poise at the crease never wavered.

“It’s not just the runs he gets but the way he gets them as well, his balance and tempo at the crease, his intent,” Hussain said.

For all the talent that Pope, Lawrence and Crawley undoubtedly possess, when England come up against Bumrah, Shami, Boult, Hazlewood, Cummins and co over the next few months, it is Root who they will be looking to for the big scores.

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Proving he has overcome his issues against such high-class pace bowling remains on his to-do list but a masterful display in spinning conditions will surely do his confidence untold good and that is half the battle.

“As a captain, you are asking people to make difficult decisions and if you’re doing that yourself and contributing, everything seems so much easier,” Hussain added.

“I was speaking to Graham Thorpe about Joe and why he hasn’t been converting and he said he just has to be selfish. Whenever we’ve spoken to Joe Root, have you ever seen a selfish streak in that young man? Never. It’s never about him, it’s always about the team.

“Having Jacques Kallis out there (as England batting consultant) – and this is not saying that Jacques was a selfish cricketer – when he got in that bubble, Jacques Kallis’ eyes would go and you weren’t getting him out, he’d have to get himself out and that was not happening.

“I think that will do Joe a lot of good, having Jacques Kallis around.”

Prior to the series in Sri Lanka, Root spoke of his determination to get back to making match-winning scores with the bat. No doubt there will be tougher tests to come but it’s so far, so good for the England skipper.

Watch day three of the first Test between Sri Lanka and England live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4.10am on Saturday.

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