Asked after the miracle at Headingley whether there was anything Ben Stokes couldn’t do, Joe Root thought for a moment. ‘His handwriting’s terrible,’ he said. ‘His language isn’t great, either.’
If Root was in the mood for a joke, who could blame him? By scoring 135 not out to square the Ashes, Stokes had done many things, which included sparing the captain an inquest into his leadership. For the time being, at least.
There is still magic in the air but reality must kick in quickly or the question of Root’s captaincy could crop up again as early as this week. Lose the Fourth Test in Manchester and he can kiss goodbye to regaining the urn. He would then face the task of winning at The Oval to avoid becoming the first England captain to lose at home to Australia since Nasser Hussain in 2001.
Time was when Ashes defeats were considered a rite of passage for England captains. But Hussain was the last to lead them to two in a row. After the second, in 2002-03, his reign lasted only three more Tests, two at home against Zimbabwe, before he handed over to Michael Vaughan.
Root has one advantage Hussain lacked — the absence of an obvious successor. Stokes cannot shoulder a bigger burden than he already bears, while Jos Buttler — the man he recently replaced as vice-captain — is once more trying to work out how to translate white-ball talent into red-ball success.
Jonny Bairstow has enough on his plate, while Rory Burns is just starting out. Fast bowlers are prone to injury and the role of frontline spinner keeps changing hands. There really is no one else.
That doesn’t mean Root’s leadership should not deserve scrutiny, with Hussain himself recently calling for a more aggressive approach in the field. The subject is clearly a sensitive one in the England camp, who recently steered the media towards Root’s win percentage as Test captain.
After Headingley, it rose to an impressive 51 per cent, the most of anyone bar Mike Brearley (58) to have led England in at least 30 Tests and better than the likes of Clive Lloyd, MS Dhoni, Graeme Smith and Michael Clarke.
Yet that tells only half the tale. So up and down are Root’s side that his loss percentage of 38.71 is the third-worst among England’s 30-Test leaders, behind Mike Atherton (38.89) and David Gower (56.25).
The rain-affected draw at Lord’s was only the third during Root’s tenure. And while there was plenty to celebrate about Stokes’ heroics, it’s not unfair to point out that Root’s first win over Australia in eight attempts required a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Old Trafford and The Oval may feel like referenda on his leadership.
The absence of Jimmy Anderson, who has surely bowled his last ball against Australia, and the news that opener Jason Roy and No 4 Joe Denly will swap places in the order, leaves the selectors with only one decision ahead of the fourth Test — does Sam Curran or Craig Overton replace Chris Woakes?
This is no slight on Woakes, who began the summer fending off concerns about his troublesome knee, and has done better than expected to play a full part in the World Cup and four Tests against Ireland and Australia, taking 15 wickets at 20.
But Root has turned to him less and less in the Ashes and Australia’s fast bowlers have targeted a vulnerability against the short ball. It’s time for a breather.
Curran has rarely failed to make an impression during his 10 Tests and his left-armers would provide Root with variety. But Curran is also more dependent on swing than any of his would-be team-mates, while Overton offers height, bounce and — often a feature of Manchester Tests — reverse swing.
It may also be worth bearing in mind, as England prepare for the return from concussion of Steve Smith, that Overton’s first Test wicket was Smith himself, in the day-nighter at Adelaide in December 2017. Curran, though, is a genuine all-rounder and England will feel uneasy about a lower order headed by Overton at No 8.
With Old Trafford expected to offer encouragement to the faster bowlers, Australian left-armer Mitchell Starc could make his first appearance of the series after limbering up in the tourists’ innings-and-54-run win over Derbyshire.
The fact Australia would have to rest one of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood or James Pattinson is a frightening reminder of their fast-bowling resources. If England leave themselves needing another miracle in Manchester, the Ashes will be gone with a game to spare.