At the start of 2017, when Alastair Cook stepped down as England captain, it heralded a new dawn not just for English cricket, but also for a quartet of modern-day stars.
By the time 2016 ended, Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root had already established themselves as the preeminent batsmen of this generation; Root’s climb up to the leadership role in whites meant that all four were now also captains of their respective Test sides.
At this stage, while Smith could hold his own at the summit of this awesome foursome – as he has, purely in batting terms, all along – the other three were bunched quite close to each other. Smith’s average had gone past 60, Kohli had just touched 50, Williamson was edging the 50-mark. Root, though, was the best-placed among the three behind Smith, with an average of 52.80 when he took over from Cook.
With each of them in the second-half of their 20s, the modern-day ‘Fab Four’ was stepping into its golden hour.
In the four years that followed, three continued to take the giant steps that separate the very good from the great. But for one, the graph had begun to go in the opposite direction.
From 2017 to 2020, Smith averaged 62.63, Kohli 58.66 and Williamson 61.91. Root, meanwhile, averaged 42.48 in the same period.
It could have been with its justifiable reasons, most notably the conditions he had to contend with when batting at home – arguably tougher than the respective challenges laid out to Messrs Smith, Kohli and Williamson when stepping out in their own dens.
Regardless, the narrative was changing. Root, to most, was now a notch below his three contemporary geniuses. With Babar Azam hitting a purple patch – an average of 62.80 between 2018 and 2020 – there was, to many, a new suitor to the fourth spot in the quartet.
With all due respect to the recently-appointed Pakistan captain, and an honest admission to finding him arguably the most ‘watchable’ batsman in present-day cricket, Azam’s spot is perhaps more justified in the best among the next ‘generation’, as opposed to among the aforementioned four – Azam has played at least 47 fewer Tests than each member of this quartet, and has a career span currently half the size of these luminaries. In these generational debates, longevity matters.
So back to the ‘Fab Four’ then – and the return of Root.
Resurgent, resplendent: Root’s reboot
Less than 40 days into 2021, Root is already stamping this as his year.
644 runs from two-and-a-half Tests, with at least 14 more to follow – Mohammad Yousuf’s 1788-run haul in 2006, the highest tally in any calendar year, faces a serious run for its money. And if the English skipper continues in this voluminous vein, that might not be the only record he breaks through 2021.
Root’s sweeping aside of the spin threat over these five innings in the subcontinent has been simply sensational – that he’s exerted this dominance in a part of the world where the best have found it difficult in the recent past has shaken up the comparative conversations, in a matter of weeks.
The last time any batsman scored a double-century against India, MS Dhoni was still the Indian Test captain. The last time any batsman scored a double-century against India in India, MS Dhoni was leading an Indian Test team that featured Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Harbhajan and Zaheer.
No batsman from outside the subcontinent had ever made 150 scores in three successive Tests in Asia.
In doing what he’s done to kickstart the year, Root has righted some oft-mentioned wrongs.
Correcting the conversion conundrum
The cross that’s most tellingly hung over Root, especially in comparison with his contemporaries, is his inability to regularly convert fifties into hundreds. The rest of the quartet, over their careers, have converted at least 40 percent of their 50 scores into centuries (Kohli 54 percent, Smith 47 percent, Williamson 43 percent).
Root’s conversion rate, prior to the ongoing subcontinental turn, was 25.76 percent – and even more meagre 21.43 percent since he became captain.
Of course, even after this high, the gulf remains a gigantic one (Root’s conversion rate is now 29 percent). But the monstrosity of his three most recent triple-digit outings reflects a hunger that ought to serve the 30-year-old well.
A hunger for humongous hundreds
While the conversion rate might be lacking, Root’s penchant for turning his eventual centuries into marathon efforts is, actually, ahead of even his esteemed peers.
Exactly half of Root’s 20 Test hundreds have been 150 scores – and with the 218 at Chepauk, half of those 10 have seen Root finish with a double-ton.
That places the English captain on top of at least one ‘Fab Four’ list: Root’s runs-per-innings when he crosses a hundred is 164 – comfortably ahead of second-placed Kohli, who averages 151 every time he scores a Test century. The corresponding numbers for Williamson and Smith, respectively, are 147 each.
For good or bad, the conversation around batting greatness is determined, significantly, by performances in conventionally ‘adverse’ conditions; subcontinental batsmen find higher footing in all-time debates for the weight of runs accrued outside Asia, and vice-versa.
On this count, Root presently finds himself well clear – and not just of his contemporaries.
With a minimum qualification of 1,000 runs, only five non-Asian batsmen in Test history can boast a higher average in Asia than Root: Garfield Sobers, Stephen Fleming, Michael Hussey, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai.
At 59.41, Root finds himself ahead of such luminaries as Lara, Gower, Kallis, Border, Flower, Cook and Hayden, in terms of successful returns in the subcontinent.
For comparison, Smith averages 48 after 13 Tests in Asia, and Williamson 47 after 19.
The challenge: Champion consistency
Root’s current streak of gargantuan scores has helped address a possibly unthinkable blemish in his track record – prior to this Asian sojourn, he had never scored hundreds in back-to-back Tests.
In taking this purple patch into a sustained golden run will lie Root’s ticket to putting himself at par – or ahead – of Smith, Kohli, Williamson and the rest.
Root debuted in December 2012, which gives him eight completed years as a Test cricketer, from 2013 to 2020. He’s finished with an average above 50 in three of these eight years.
In the same time-frame, Smith and Kohli have had five such years, and Williamson six.
That is the champion consistency that Root is aspiring to. If he can continue to channel the spirit of these past few weeks, you won’t bet against him achieving that.