Joe Root went into 2021 at a crossroads, having endured his first calendar year without a Test century to his name since properly establishing himself. Everything he has touched since has turned to gold.
Joe Root went into 2021 seemingly at a career crossroads. For the first time since he had established himself in England’s Test side, he had gone a full calendar year without a single century. His position in Test cricket’s ‘big four’ was under some scrutiny, with the man himself distancing his name from maestros Smith, Williamson and Kohli.
Now, he stands alone as the format’s best batsman, climbing to the top of the rankings for the first time since 2015.
Root was confirmed as the top batsman on the MRF Tyres ICC Test player rankings on Wednesday, with his player rating climbing to 916 points – just one below his career-best 917 achieved in August 2015 when he first reached the rankings summit.
That’s remarkable given he went into the year with a rating of 738 and indicative of what he has achieved in 2021.
Numbers alone do not speak to how special 2021 has been for Root and that’s saying something given what those numbers are – 1398 runs at 69.90, including six centuries and one fifty. No other batsman has more than 800 runs for the year and no other batsman has scored more than three centuries.
But to truly appreciate what he has done you need to look at where he has come from.
A LEAN 2020
Ranking at the start of the year: Ninth
Root went into 2021 with his Test average sitting at 47.99. Excellent for almost anyone, but significantly worse than the 56.58 his mean hovered at when he had reached No.1 in 2015. Through 2020 he had failed to make a single Test century despite passing 50 four times across eight matches. The last time he went a calendar year without a Test ton was in 2012 – he played one match that year, scoring 73 on debut against India.
Worryingly, 2020 did not appear to be an anomaly. In the three years spanning 2018 to 2020, Root played in 33 matches and 60 innings, and averaged 39.70, with four centuries.
Having long been established as a member of Test cricket’s ‘big four’ alongside Australia’s Steve Smith, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson and India’s Virat Kohli, Root himself was questioning his position alongside his contemporaries.
“I try not to measure myself against other players,” an ever-humble Root said in October last year on a podcast with Simon Hughes. “But I do watch a lot of how they go about constructing different types of innings across the three formats.
“You’re looking at three of the greatest players the game has seen. They’re three brilliant people to watch play and learn from. I’m not sure I’d put myself in their bracket, to be honest.”
Every step Root has taken since then has reaffirmed that he firmly belongs in that bracket – a group of four batsmen who have had an exclusive hold on the top spot on the rankings since November 2015.
Ranking at the end of the year: Ninth
DOMINATING SRI LANKA
Ranking going into the series: 11th
Root took his first tentative steps as a Test cricketer in Asia, debuting in India in 2012. He has enjoyed himself on the continent ever since and already sits third for the most Test runs scored by a touring batsman in those conditions with 1992 at an average of 52.42.
As many as 426 of those runs came in a two-Test series at the start of this year that ignited Root’s current purple patch.
Taking on Sri Lanka in their own conditions, Root was mathematically twice as good as the next batter in the series. He topped the run-scoring with 426 runs at an average of 106.50, exactly two times as many runs as second-placed Angelo Mathews (213 at 53.25) at double the average.
It wasn't exactly a famine in 2020, but Root feasted at the earliest opportunity in 2021. On a pitch that saw the Sri Lankans bowled out for 135 in their first innings, Root raced to his century in just 163 balls and did not stop there. Just 128 deliveries later he raised his double century, eventually finishing his innings on 228.
Firmly back in form, he backed up his 228 with a 186-run effort in the second Test with only the sharpest of run-outs denying him double-centuries in consecutive matches.
Such was the performance that teammate Jos Buttler labelled it an “education” for the whole team.
"It was a quite amazing innings," Buttler said. "To back up his double-hundred in the first Test, both physically and mentally, and to show the application to go and do it again. Today it's been a masterclass in batting against spin, and it has been a great education for all of us, watching from the sidelines. We've thoroughly enjoyed watching him and we're gutted for him to get out in that fashion at the end of the day.
“Not just young players but older players and people watching from home can learn a lot from watching Joe Root bat against spin.”
For the wicketkeeper-batter, it was a reaffirmation of what he already knew – that was Root was as special a player as they come.
"You can talk about his under-performing, but it's pretty good for others," Buttler said. "He certainly sits at the top table of cricketers in the world, and the standards he sets himself and drives on to achieve is what makes him so good.
"That hunger to back up a double in the first game, to go and score another massive hundred, just shows where he is at with his game.”
Ranking at the end of the series: 5th
FIRING AGAINST INDIA
Ranking going into the series: 5th
Root’s twin centuries against Sri Lanka saw England take out the series 2-0, reigniting their hopes of reaching the World Test Championship Final.
They were further emboldened when Root started his series against India exactly where he had left off – on fire.
Taking on an Indian side still high on the glories of their plunder Down Under, Root made it three centuries in as many Tests to start his 2021. And once again he made it a century of real note, combining grace and grit on his way to 218 off 377 deliveries across 536 minutes. It was a knock that took England to a total of 578 – the biggest by an opposition team in India since 2011. It was enough to see England to a 227-run victory, dealing India their first loss at home since 2017.
It was a performance that came against an Indian attack close to full strength on a pitch where Ravichandran Ashwin would snare nine wickets.
“Joe makes us all feel pretty rubbish with how easy he makes batting look,” Ben Stokes said of the innings. “He's in phenomenal form and making things look very, very easy. The way he plays spin – dominates spin – is incredible to watch. I don't think we've had an England batsman ever play spin the way he does. He's got an answer and an option for everything."
It was Root’s 20th Test century and fittingly came in his 100th match for the country. He notched another 40 runs in the second innings to take his tally across the first three Tests for the year to 684 – only Rohit Sharma (768) has scored more runs in the whole of 2021 so far.
With those back-to-back-back centuries, Root also took a significant step forward in his quest to correct the one statistic that has so often stood out for the wrong reasons. Often accused of failing to turn starts into scores of serious significance, Root has turned six of his seven 50+ scores for the year into centuries, compared to 17 from 66 before 2021.
"I certainly feel like I'm in some good form and I need to make sure I cash in on it," Root said. "Over the course of my career, I've not always gone on and made really big scores, so to be doing that currently is really pleasing. If I keep getting myself in positions to make big hundreds, then I've got to keep taking them and we're going to win more games.
"I've worked on a few technical things in a few areas of my game," he added. "I've looked at certain trends of how I was getting out at certain times of my innings and tried to eradicate it. I've tried to improve things and evolve as a player, and it seems to be working nicely. The challenge will be, can I continue to keep trying to get better all the time?"
That proved to be Root’s final score of serious note for the series as India roared back to win 3-1. He still finished as the highest run-scorer for the series with 368 at an average of 46.
Ranking at the end of the series: 4th
Ranking going into the series: 4th
So far this year, New Zealand have been the one side that has managed to keep Root quiet.
The England skipper managed just 97 runs at 24.25 across the two Tests, making a high score of 42. In fairness, it was a series dominated by the ball, with just two centuries scored including Devon Conway’s double hundred on debut.
England found themselves up against a New Zealand attack at the height of their powers, with Tim Southee, Matt Henry and Trent Boult all averaging less than 20 with the ball.
Ranking at the end of the series: 5th
Ranking going into the series: 5th
The lean campaign against New Zealand proved no more than a blip for Root, with the England captain putting India’s highly vaunted attack to the sword in the ongoing five-match campaign.
In a series where the next highest scoring batter has 252 runs, Root has made 507 at an average of 126.75. Those 507 runs represent a whopping 35.5 per cent of the runs England has scored for the whole series.
Root did the heavy lifting for England in the opening Test, scoring a fluid 64 in the first innings as the team was bowled out for just 183 before producing an even better performance in the second dig. He again proved the backbone of the innings, racing to 109 off 172 balls as England managed 303, with the next highest score of 32. Despite his heroics, which earned him Player of the Match honours, India still went into the final day as favourites needing 157 to win with nine wickets in hand only for rain to wipe out play.
He took things up a gear in the second Test, making a brilliant and unbeaten 180, looking at ease against an Indian attack that seemingly had answers for every England batsman but him. Along the way, he moved to second on England’s all-time Test run-scoring charts. Given he is still only 30 years old, you would back him to score the 3252 runs he needs from here to surpass former captain Alistair Cook.
Unfortunately for Root, this time around his century was not enough to deny India victory, with his 33 the top score in England’s second innings.
A match later however he finished on the right side of the ledger, making 121 to put England in firm control after they’d bowled India out for 78. With that, Root ticked off another record, becoming the England skipper with the most Test wins with 27 so far. Globally, only seven captains have enjoyed more Test victories.
Ranking currently: 1st
WHAT’S TO COME
With 1398 runs at 69.90 so far in 2021, Root has enjoyed the 17th most productive calendar year by a batsman in Test history. Given he has two Tests to go against India and the first three matches of the Ashes before the year comes to an end, expect him to finish 2021 much closer to the top of that list.
Mohammad Yousuf’s record 1788 runs at 99.33 in 2006 – incredibly made in two fewer innings than Root has played this year – is still 390 runs away but if the Englishman continues on his current trajectory he should reach the mark in either the first or second Ashes Test.
Of course, that is much easier said than done. At the same time, Root has made everything look easy in 2021.