Joe Root and the fine art of cricketing leadership

Andrew Williams gives his thoughts on Joe Root, the new England cricket captain, and the art of cricketing leadership.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Leaders are not one and the same. They are not uniform. Whether within or outside of sport, you will rarely find leaders who are carbon copies of one another. From the combative Martin Keown to the innovative Bill Gates and the disarmingly respectable Alistair Cook, it is very difficult to categorically define a leader.

This means one often doesn’t know where the next great leader will emerge, so finding a successor for leadership can be something of a calculated gamble. Inferences and investigations can be a good idea, but definitive answers may still be lacking.

Thus, when the recently appointed England captain Joe Root was described by Yorkshire’s director of cricket as a “born leader,” it was not unreasonable to raise a few eyebrows. That Martyn Moxon went on to proclaim that he is “sure he will do a good job” is brave to say the least. The most talented are not always the best leaders.

However, the claim hasn’t simply been plucked out of thin air. As director of cricket at Yorkshire, Moxon has had a more intimate vantage point than most. He points out that even as a youngster, Root would spend hours studying the game and different tactics to prepare himself for the eventuality of being captain.

His captaincy experience has been limited, but as Geoffrey Boycott pointed out, every time he has taken a step up, “he’s handled it. If not straight away, then he’s quickly got it because he’s got an acute cricket brain.”

This is an important attribute; Root may not have shown the ability to be captain in his career up to this point (he’s captained four times with only varying degrees of success), but he’s shown an ability to grow.

When faced with different challenges, whether batting anywhere in the top five or in unfamiliar climates such as the sub-continent, he has worked hard to overcome these challenges.

The “cricket brain” to which Boycott alluded is significant. Root is not just a likeable character and a good batsman. He fundamentally understands the intricacies and nuances of a cricket match and therefore is best placed to make decisions that can change the outcome of matches. If you want to be blunt, he just gets it.

Although the debate about the quality of his captaincy has been fairly one-sided, what we can expect in terms of style is still uncertain. It is often said that a player’s original captaincy style mirrors that of his own game. Alistair Cook initially was very conservative and took much encouragement to embrace a more attacking mindset in the field. Brendon McCullum created a New Zealand side in his own image: dynamic, risk-taking entertainers. If this is to be the same for Root, then we should expect an energetic and truly vibrant style of captaincy. If he leads in the same way he has conducted himself as batsman, then frequent and quirky field-changes shouldn’t be unexpected.

His rhetoric, however, has not given much away. Apart from insisting that he would like to put his own stamp on the job, the only insight from the captain himself has been an admission that he’d like “to be instinctive.” He wants his team “to look to win and be a tough side to play against.” Not exactly a Sherlock Holmes-esque insight there. We are not totally in the dark. Root’s newly appointed vice-captain Ben Stokes was effusive in his desire for the Root-Stokes leadership axis to provide the viewing public with a brand of cricket everyone can love.

The all-rounder has suggested that results are not enough. In order to halt and reverse the downward trajectory that is currently defining national interest in the test team, exciting cricket has to be played. He has gone further than Root to explain that “we need to win but we want to perform in a manner that makes people want to come and watch us. Test cricket is the pinnacle and we need people to fall in love with it again.”

It would therefore come as a surprise if England under Root didn’t carry on trying to play the more fluid and attacking style of cricket that coach Trevor Bayliss uses. Maturity levels will have to increase, though. England is often left looking like a naive younger brother who hasn’t quite ascertained when he can get away with being mischievous. There are times when sensible, restrained consolidation is the order of the day.

It has already been mentioned that selecting a new captain is a gamble. However, this is a gamble not without precedent in world cricket. With the appointment of Root, the four leading test batsmen in the world, according to both popular opinion and the world rankings, are now captains of their respective nations.

Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, and Kane Williamson have all taken up the mantle of captain for India, Australia, and New Zealand respectively. All in their mid-20s, each has improved in batting since accepting the responsibility. With Kohli’s average rocketing up by almost 27 runs (up to 68) since becoming captain and Smith’s by 21 runs (up to 72), the hope is that Root’s 52.8 can also be a site of great improvement.

Having already played 53 tests, Root is not a newcomer, and aged only 26, time is on his side. When there are advocates such as ex-England captain Michael Vaughan coming out and labelling him “ready-made for the England captaincy,” then it is obvious that support is not lacking.

A note of caution, however: just as good leaders come in all shapes and sizes, seemingly good leaders can equally turn out to be less successful. This column is definitely hoping and believing the former, but this wouldn’t be the first time that a “chosen one” has not lived up to expectations.


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