The beginnings of a 'Joe Root' team


Despite Root taking over as captain in February 2017, only now does it seem he is starting to build a group that is uniquely his © AFP

England adopted a bold approach to beat Sri Lanka in Galle to register their first away Test win in nearly two years.

The plan, to attack early, was not smooth. While England did score 105 in the first session of the match, they also lost five wickets. But, with the hosts reacting to the tactic by putting men back on the fence, it allowed the rest of the order scoring options that may not have been available. It was a page right out of Eoin Morgan’s ODI playbook. It worked.

Ben Foakes picked up a maiden Test century as England posted 342 to set up a 211-run win. They travelled to Colombo on Saturday with an unlikely 1-0 series lead with two still to play. But there was one wildcard they had up their sleeve but did not play – Jos Buttler at number three.

With England batting first, Moeen Ali came out at the fall of the first wicket in both innings. However, had Sri Lanka won the toss and stuck the tourists in, Buttler would be the one with his pads on as the openers walked out, confirmed head coach Trevor Bayliss: “In this Test, if we’d bowled first, and Mo [Moeen Ali] had 40 overs, Buttler was going to bat No. 3.”

The fluidity of England’s batting line-up is another white ball tactic not just seeping into Test cricket, but taking over, too. This has clearly been the case in terms of personnel.

A few years ago, there was talk of different squads for different formats in the name of “specialisation”, especially as long-form players such as James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook before them were effectively ‘blacklisted’ from international white-ball cricket. You could perhaps throw left-arm spinner Jack Leach into that mix given he does not play much limited-overs cricket for Somerset.

Where number three was once a position set in stone, requiring years of experience and a player set in their ways, such as Jonathan Trott. But, in the absence of a full-time solution, Bayliss and Root will play things by ear. One player, though, that may finally be ruled out of doing the job is Moeen.

While he had an exceptional game with the ball, taking four for 66 and four for 71, he returned a first-ball duck and three with the bat. The Worcestershire all-rounder now averages 14.50 in six innings at first-drop – a figure in line with the 14 he averages in as many innings when opening the batting. A decision has not been made about where he will bat in Kandy, but Bayliss cedes a spot top three, certainly in this form of the game, is not be for him.

“He’s had a few opportunities, let’s be honest, up the order, and at this stage hasn’t really taken them. Yes, he’s been a guy we have thrown around a little bit. That’s sometimes the lot of an all-rounder in the team. I think he’s had the most success in that middle-lower order.”

Of the options to take on the role long-term, Bayliss singled out Ben Stokes who he says “has got as good a technique as anyone else to bat number three”. While his preference is Joe Root to persist with the role he returned to at the start of the summer, he appreciates his captain may have enough on his plate. Another player he will sit down with to discuss the job is Jonny Bairstow.

Bairstow’s recovery from the ankle injury that gave Foakes the chance for his man-of-the-match performance will be stepped up in the coming days in a bid to prove his fitness for the second Test, which begins in Kandy on Wednesday (November 14). While he did not field as a substitute during the four days, he spent a lot of time batting and wicketkeeping in the nets. “He has not done any real strenuous running between the wires yet,” said Bayliss. “I am sure the two days up in Kandy will make that a bit tougher so we will see if he comes through that. But all the signs are looking good.”

This year has seen a dip in Bairstow’s batting form, but he averages above 40 in the last two years and is still considered worthy of a spot in the XI as a batsman only. All told, Foakes is the superior gloveman and his first two goes at batting in these conditions have shown he, too, is more than capable of holding his own in a batting spot.

While Bayliss joked that if Foakes lost his spot in the next match, it would not be the first time someone was axed after a star turn – he cited the example of Australian Brad Hodge who was binned two Tests after a double hundred – it seems unlikely England will be quite as ruthless.

The fear, long-term, is that Bairstow is so wedded to the gloves that putting his nose out of joint by taking them away when he has done little wrong would have a detrimental effect on his mindset and, subsequently, form.

Bayliss, though a fan of Bairstow’s stubbornness, feels whatever comes to pass, those missing out, one way or another, need to accept the decision and move on.

“Look Jos Buttler was disappointed he wasn’t keeping in this match. We’ve got three guys who want to keep so I don’t think it matters who (goes) out, they are going to be disappointed. They all see themselves as a wicketkeeper. The good thing about this team is that they all take it on the chin and it is all for the good of the team.”

One player who has taken ‘rejection’ in his stride is Stuart Broad. Despite 433 Test wickets to his name, England’s second greatest seamer understood he was likely to miss out in Galle because of the need to balance the attack with more spinners. James Anderson, the only out-and-out quick, bowled just 22 out of England’s 153.1 overs, with all-rounders Sam Curran and Ben Stokes taking the remaining overs of the 45 bowled by the seamers.

The Pallekele pitch is said to offer greater carry and movement which brings Broad back into play. Bayliss was reticent to confirm. “He (Broad) actually said to me he’d have gone with that team as well. He had no worries about missing out. Is he a chance of missing out (in Kandy)? He’s like the others. We’ll have to get there and have a look at the conditions.”

There is certainly a freshness about this squad. Already they seem receptive to new ideas, open to new plans and appreciating a series win out here is a squad rather than a team game. Bayliss feels the upside was reflected in the last three days of the Test – “three of the best days in a row we have put together for quite a while” – to secure this first win in five attempts at Galle.

Despite Root taking over as captain in February 2017, only now does it seem he is starting to build a group that is uniquely his. Bayliss certainly sees it this way.

“Already on this tour is it is looking very much like there is a (feeling) this is the beginnings of Joe Root’s team. There are some new, younger players coming into the team and around the squad and it just has that feel about it that this can be the beginnings of a better time.”

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