Joe Root heads the list of players in contention for ICC’s Cricketer of The Year award for 2021. Others in the race are Ravi Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kylie Jamieson and Dimuth Karunaratne, but it is difficult to see the English captain losing out after scoring a phenomenal 1708 Test runs in the calendar year, falling narrowly behind Mohamed Yusuf (1788 in 2006) and Viv Richards (1710 in 1976).
The only player seriously challenging Root for the coveted accolade this year in my opinion is Ashwin who’s had a great year as bowler and also scored runs whenever needed by his team. Ashwin not being played in any of the four Tests against England last summer was, all things considered, a diabolical decision given his form.
This probably prevented India from clinching the series already – one match is still to be played, England trailing 1-2 – and cost the Indian off spinner the few wickets which could have helped him pip Root to the top spot. Who finally wins the ICC award remains to be seen, but Root is odds-on favourite I would think.
He’s made two double hundreds this year, one each in Sri Lanka and India. Most overseas batsmen (not from the sub-continent) have trepidations of playing on spin friendly pitches obtained in these countries, but Root passed the test with poise and style, showing great technical ability as well as stomach for a fight.
Before his magnificent 218 at Chennai, you have to go back a little over a decade when an overseas batsman scored a double ton in India – Hashim Amla with 253 not out at Nagpur. This highlights the difficulty quotient for batsmen to reach such a milestone on Indian pitches against the likes of Ashwin and Jadeja in the last decade.
After a modest two-Test home series against New Zealand, Root hit a purple patch against India again, stroking three centuries in four Tests, batting with aplomb and authority against India’s formidable pace attack this time. Without him, it would probably have been a clean sweep for India. Because of him, the series could still be squared next year if England win the one-off Test next year.
His brilliant form raised expectations that England would fare creditably in the Ashes, but such hopes have been dashed to the ground in the first three Tests where they have been roundly thrashed by the Aussies. A 0-5 rout seems inevitable now.
Root’s mammoth run-scoring is in stark contrast to his team’s fortunes and has caused a maelstrom in England about the whys and hows of the disastrous showing. In the list of batsmen who have scored more than 1000 runs in a calendar year, Root has got the least support from his batting teammates. The difference between him and next best Dawid Malan in runs scored is gaping. It’s been virtually a one-man show without parallel. Root’s been a colossus, standing on a rickety pedestal alas because of how his team, which he captains, has fared.
But if the team plays so poorly, with Root the only exception among batsmen, how good is the system that produces players for international cricket? England’s travails, goes the debate, can’t be just about team selection and current form. If the team’s performance is so pathetic as to be exposed in almost every situation and series, the malaise must surely be deeper.
Is this because the England cricket establishment has given excessive weightage to white ball cricket, forsaking Test cricket in the bargain? The rise of English cricket in limited overs cricket, reaching a crescendo in the 2019 ODI World Cup triumph, has been a remarkable story and something to be cherished. But has it cost them severely in red ball cricket because of systemic neglect?
There is meat in the argument. It does sound farcical that the most coveted cricket event in England currently should be called `The Hundred’ when nobody in the team, apart from Root, looks capable of scoring that in a Test match! To what extent England’s current pathetic condition in red ball cricket it because of lack of focus will be a matter of serious scrutiny but there is a missive nonetheless for all countries that still covet Test cricket.
Meanwhile, Joe Root deserves a hat tip. His versatility and the quality of his batsmanship this year has enhanced his stature in the game manifold… He’s easily the best batsman in the world today. Alas England are arguably the worst Test team. The ecstasy and the agony.