Is Joe Root England’s best-ever batter, as former captain Michael Vaughan tweeted last week? It’s a vexing question. This would make Root greater than even Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton which only the very brave, or foolhardy, will venture to say.
Comparing players who played on uncovered pitches all their lives with modern ones often goes against cricket logic. But what greater accolade for Root than to be spoken of in the same breath as Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton! By implication, he has moved ahead of Boycott, Gooch, Gower, Cook and every other post-War England batsman one can think of. Except Ken Barrington and Kevin Pietersen for me.
I’ll admit to a personal bias towards Barrington who was a childhood hero. When he toured India in 1964, he not only scored runs aplenty, but was also a great crowd-puller, keeping fans engaged with his byplay as much as his batting.. Most of the England team was otherwise stuffed with joyless faces, stiff-upper lips and crinkled noses, as if they were on a punishment assignment, not on a tour of a cricket-mad country. For a 9-year-old, Barrington made the serious business of Test cricket seem such fun.
I’m not dropping Barrington’s name here only for nostalgic reasons. He was a massive run-maker and England’s most dependable batsman in the 1960s. Check out his stats: 6806 runs in 82 Tests at a whopping average of 58.67. Only Herbert Sutcliffe and Eddie Paynter average better for England.
Pietersen is a modern giant: brilliant in all conditions, winning several matches on his own. His 186 against India on a spinner’s pitch at the Wankhede in 2012-13, turned the match and the series on its head. Till he fell out of favour for alleged misdemeanours, Pietersen was arguably the world’s most compelling batsman.
A batter reaching 10000 runs may not have the same electrifying impact today as when Sunil Gavaskar became the first batsman to scale that peak 35 years back, but is still a major landmark. Statistical achievement apart, it also shows up other attributes that define batting greatness viz skills, fitness, motivation, focus, perseverance over a long period of time and most crucially, undying ambition.
Ravi Shastri shares the anecdote about Gavaskar telling Geoff Boycott, after the England opener had gone past Sir Garry Sobers’ record aggregate in the 1981-82 series, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Within a year, Gavaskar had dislodged Boycott as the highest run-scorer.
Not all batsmen, however, can be as successful as Gavaskar in unrelenting ambition. In 1990, after he scored a century in his 100th Test at Lahore against India, Javed Miandad told me he wouldn’t rest till he overtook Gavaskar who had retired with 10122 runs. “Ye record to mujhe chahiye ( I want this record),” Miandad said. But despite huffing and puffing for a few more years, he fell short.
It’s not my case that batsmen who finish with fewer runs are in any way inferior to the current cluster of 14 batsmen with 10k-plus runs. Before the boom in Test cricket from the 1980s, matches were far fewer. All-time greats Hobbs, Hammond, Hutton, Neil Harvey, the three Ws, Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, not forgetting Don Bradman, to name only a few, are way below the 10000-mark, but not a whit behind in calibre or influence on the sport.
Interestingly though, there are only two batsmen with 9000-plus runs—Hashim Amla and Steve Smith. And a further 17 with 8000-plus runs. Why so many didn’t stretch their careers enough to get to 10k runs is intriguing.
Loss of form or fitness, fatigue, boredom, ambition achieved could be some reasons. I’ve talked about Pietersen, who was dumped, and Miandad, who ran out of steam chasing Gavaskar. Smith, Amla and AB de Villiers could have played longer had they been able to cope with South African cricket politics. And so on. The reasons are varied.
In this context, Root breaking the 10000-run barrier has some sterling aspects. He’s only achieved this in the shortest time but turned things around for himself (if not England!) in the past 2-3 years. Only the best batsmen can regain lost momentum in the second half of their careers. Root has done so with astonishing aplomb and authority, stroking centuries in Sri Lanka, India and England.
In 2021, he had 1708 runs in the calendar year. He wasn’t as successful in the Ashes, but his was still the most prized wicket for Australia. For a batsman to be so successful in a team that has been struggling so badly for so long shows admirable focus and commitment.
Moreover—and I find this aspect most remarkable—he’s not been affected by the Covid threat and living in a bio-secure bubble, which appears to have taken heavy toll of many major players. To the contrary, Root has hit a crest.
Whether he is England’s best batsman ever will remain contentious but he’s settled another major debate that has been raging for almost a decade. Laggard among the Fab Four, Root has turned the tables on Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson in spectacular style and rejigged the pecking order. He is now undeniably top of the pops!