Decades from now, when some awkward teenager in a biosecure bunker tries to forget about the grimness of the dying planet outside by scrolling through old cricket statistics on their settlement’s offline intranet, they will think that Joe Root in 2021 must have been kissed on the nose by a sunbeam. Not only did he get to spend time outdoors, above ground, with no concern for atmospheric chlorine or flying sharks, but he made runs wherever he went, against all-comers, racing up the record list like a 12-legged scorpion up a respirator pipe.
For his final stanza, the tour of Australia, his numbers will carry on the earlier prolific trend, at least through the first two matches in Brisbane and Adelaide. In neither match, though, has he done what he did in almost every other series this year: make centuries. Touring in Asia, three matches brought him 228, 186 and 218. Four matches in England brought 109, an unbeaten 180 and 121.
In Australia, his processions have been roadblocked at 89 and 62, scores big enough to reaffirm Root’s current fineness of touch but not big enough to define the matches that contain them. Not that Root’s centuries were always enough to drag his struggling team to victory, but in Australia his two good innings have been curtailed before that even became a chance. Both times, the reason has been Cameron Green.
Across the course of three overs to start the second session of day three at Adelaide, Australia’s tall all-rounder gave Root some serious testing around his off-stump. Green bashed the ball into the surface, finding dramatic lift and a bit of movement while staying unerringly accurate in his line. Root groped for a few deliveries, ran one boundary away off the face of his bat, and not long afterwards edged behind trying a similar shot. A small amount of seam movement away from him was enough to do him in at second slip.
That made it two dismissals in two innings for Green, after Root had reached for a more conventional delivery in Brisbane and nicked to the keeper. After that Test he gave the young Green some lukewarm praise, saying that he was a “talented” cricketer but that England’s batters would play him better having seen him operate in two innings. Instead of them playing him better, Green bowled better to them. Familiarity certainly did not help Root.
The significance, of course, is that Root has twice been able to survive bulk attention from Australia’s frontline bowlers – Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc in both matches, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in Brisbane, Michael Neser and Jhye Richardson in Adelaide – only to fall to the fifth option used. He has faced 281 deliveries across two innings, largely from those principal bowlers, before giving a breakthrough to the relief option.
A year ago, in his first Test season, Green’s bowling was stopgap, with his recovery from a back injury limiting him to a few overs of unthreatening medium-fast stuff. This season he has regained velocity and added effort after thundering to the crease, regularly clocking speeds in the bracket reserved for fast bowlers who carry no caveat. He is becoming an option, not a fallback.
Bowlers before a series always talk about targeting the opposition’s best bat. Green has been the one to succeed. He may not have made runs yet at No 6, but any player who could offer the wicket of Root in every innings would be worth their place for that alone. Even against a functional team. But this is a team that routinely loses its first two wickets in a matter of minutes to bring Root to the middle, then collapses as soon as he departs.
In Adelaide, Root helped add 138 runs before getting out, from which point England lost eight wickets for 86. In Brisbane he added 168 before a collapse of 7 for 68. In the first innings, where he made a rare duck, England kept sliding with eight for 136. When Green has dismissed Root, it has not been a matter of felling the queen on a chessboard. It is removing the base piece from a Jenga tower.
All of this is information that our post-apocalyptic kid might never find. Root has achieved wonderful personal results, with only three players left ahead of him on the list for Test runs in a year. But he has not had a wonderful year personally, with the strain of trying to lead a team that crumbles around him like this.
His first three big scores created wins in Sri Lanka and in India. In the three remaining India Tests, his team was destroyed. Only one of his home hundreds got England across the line, in a series effectively lost though a cancelled match that will be played next year. The numbers are one thing; the story behind them can be something else. A bowler like Green – five wickets from six Tests at 34 runs each, a record you would call handy but unspectacular – can attest to that.