Joe Root‘s move back to No. 3 in the England Test side stems from his belief that the time is right for him to take on more responsibility in a top order that has struggled for consistency for too long.
Trevor Bayliss, the England coach, has made no secret of the fact he believes first drop should be Root’s position – because he is England’s best batsman – but has stopped short of forcing the move on the captain who has previously said he prefers No. 4.
However, after a winter in which England lost five of their seven Tests against Australia and New Zealand, Root has made the decision to elevate himself in the first side picked under new national selector Ed Smith, following the axing of James Vince.
“I think it’s an opportunity for me to take on a bit more responsibility at the top of the order,” Root said. “I’ve had a year in the captaincy now and I feel I’ve gained enough experience to feel comfortable doing that.”
It is not a new role for Root, he has played 31 innings at No. 3 and made his highest Test score of 254 against Pakistan in 2016, although his average of 43.96 is considerably lower than his career mark of 52.63 and he moved back down the order at the start of the previous English season when he was named captain. Since then, Gary Ballance, Tom Westley and Vince have failed to nail down the spot.
Root did go back to No. 3 against New Zealand in Auckland – the match in which England were 27 for 9 and bowled out for 58 – but that was purely as a response to needing an extra bowler to cover for Ben Stokes. The next Test in Christchurch saw Vince recalled and Root back at four but this time the move has a feeling of more permanency about it.
England also need Root to get back to converting half-centuries into hundreds, something he has done only two of the 14 times he has passed fifty as captain (although he can be excused the retired ill in Sydney). He has lost ground on the contemporaries he is often bracketed with among the best batsmen of his generation – Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Steven Smith – although Smith now finds himself indisposed in that tussle for at least a year.
“For me it was getting used to the role of captain and making sure I could separate the two and make sure my full focus was on my batting when it came around,” Root said at the launch of England’s 2018 New Balance kit. “I feel that I’m able to do that now and will go out to try to set the tone and score as many runs as I can from that position.
“I did it [No. 3] for one game in New Zealand and it didn’t work out there but this is a great opportunity to do it at home and it’s a great opportunity moving forward so I’m really excited. Ultimately nothing will change about the way I go about my batting. I will look to have that hunger and desire to make really big runs.”
Root’s move is part of a larger reshuffle of England’s top order as they attempt to solve the batting issues which were on display throughout the winter: the seven Tests brought just four centuries and one of those was from Jonny Bairstow at No. 7 in Christchurch. Alongside Root’s move to three, Bairstow will take the No. 5 slot while retaining the keeping gloves.
“It’s an opportunity to get Jonny batting at five or six and on the back of this winter he’s proven he’s a consistent performer and deserves an opportunity to do it at the top of the order as well as the back end of an innings,” Root said. “I think it gives us a real opportunity to put a lot of pressure on sides especially if we’re in a position of strength and can get our best batters of the last couple of years in the top six.”
The role of lower-order enforcer or recovery artist – depending on the match situation – has gone to Jos Buttler, one of the eye-catching selections in Smith’s first squad, who has been recalled as a batsman-only after 18 months out of the Test side and despite playing scant red-ball cricket over that time. Root was excited about what Buttler could bring, but admitted it could take time for the new batting order to knit together.
“He has done some very special things in one-day and T20 cricket and won games when he has been under pressure. Now there is an opportunity for him to do that in Test cricket. I can see him putting a lot of bums on seats. That is very exciting for me. He can change a game in half an hour with the bat.
“It is an exciting time for him. It is really important he does not put too much pressure on himself. It is about expressing himself and finding that consistency that he wants and play those innings that can put us in a strong position. It is exciting but it might be something that takes a bit of time to come right.”