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Why Ben Stokes should replace Joe Root as England Test captain

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fter England’s latest grim defeat, Joe Root is hanging on to the England Test captaincy by grim death.

This was a loss as bad as any on England’s winless winter, or through their run of one victory in 17 matches in just over a year. The pain was as much to do with the manner – the top seven combined for 127 runs in 14 innings, at an average of nine – as the margin, a thumping 10 wickets that could have been even worse.

Root’s rhetoric was that one bad day, the third, should not undo positive work on this tour. For those watching, it was all so gruesomely familiar that almost every gain – and it would be wrong to pretend there were not encouraging performances in Antigua and Barbados – was blown away in brutal fashion. At the very moment they had an opportunity to prove they were making tangible strides, they contrived to plumb a new depth.

West Indies, another modest side with an appetite for upsetting England, were resilient enough to pounce, having worn blows in the first two Tests.

England were schooled in the difficulties of playing in the Caribbean, where different islands pose such different challenges. It was fitting that West Indies won in Grenada, where their support was strong, and that captain Kraigg Brathwaite hit the winning runs.

Root’s time as skipper is surely up as their dire run continued with a series defeat in the West Indies

/ AP

One of the remarkable things about Root is that these desperate defeats do not seem to dim his appetite for the job. The sense of duty is extreme, and admirable. When he spoke yesterday, it was not about going home, talking to his loved ones and considering his future. It was about a desire to carry on. As he said the words, the sense was that he would look back in a decade and recognise that he was clinging on.

This tour was awkward, stuck between eras. The Ashes defeat blew that team and management structure apart, leaving a power vacuum in English men’s cricket – a CEO off imminently, and no permanent chair, managing director, head coach or selector. The pressure to get those appointments right seems to rise every single day.

With everyone around him having the word interim in their job title, it was not unreasonable to give Root one more series to prove the team was heading on a new path.

Root has never said whether the decision to drop James Anderson and Stuart Broad was his, but it seems fair to assume that he would not have been given a squad including such a controversial call if he did not agree with it.

It was a brave, forward-thinking decision, but one that required everything to go right: for Ollie Robinson, unfit at the Ashes, to get on the park; for injury-prone Mark Wood to play three Tests in quick succession; for Chris Woakes, looking drained of his love of the game by a long winter, to reverse a poor overseas record.

It did not pay off; England’s batting proved their ultimate Achilles heel again, but they struggled to take wickets all series. The veterans should reflect on a bullet dodged.

The performance in Grenada showed that even more needs to change. This is the point at which even a lack of obvious alternatives should be discounted as a reason for Root to stay. He has run out of ideas about how to make his team more than the sum of their modest parts.

Root does not see it that way and, in fairness, his players do not seem to either. He will have to jump, because there is no one to push him, but he does accept that new leaders might have very different ideas that he has to accept.

Root’s has been a captaincy of England records, good and bad: the most matches (64), most wins (27), most defeats (26), most runs (5,295), most centuries (14).

If this is the end, history is unlikely to remember his captaincy kindly, in part because his final winter and final Test in the job were so disappointing.

Overall, he failed to win the Ashes, England’s barometer series, in three attempts or overseas anywhere except Sri Lanka (twice) and South Africa. He has been prone to tactical woodenness (although he is not the first England captain guilty of that – think of his predecessor), especially with his spinners.

The plan to leave out experienced bowling duo Stuart Broad and James Anderson has not worked

/ PA

There is nuance to this debate, of course. Root has been a superb, smiling ambassador for the sport, almost always leading a middling team studded with top players.

There has been one world-class batter, himself, a brilliant all-rounder, Ben Stokes, and two great bowlers in the autumns of their career. Beyond that? Inconsistent, all-format cricketers, and a string of county pretenders struggling to make the step up. It is hard to blame him too much for that.

Timing has been unfortunate: he has been England’s Test captain in the first era that white-ball cricket has been prioritised – sometimes at his team’s expense.

And most damagingly, a global pandemic struck just as they looked to be building something. Tucked away in bubbles, things started to unravel when Root’s superiors opted for a well-intentioned but poorly-executed rest and rotation policy at the start of a year in which they were due to play the best three teams in the world. The ludicrous schedule was compressed by the pandemic but still agreed by the ECB.

What next, then? It would be helpful if England started viewing the captaincy through a medium-term lens – let’s start with this summer – rather than as a five-year term of office.

Stokes is not a perfect candidate, but it is time to let him have the England captaincy

/ Getty Images

After the Ashes, there were no decent contenders to take over – and please let’s stop with the left-field shouts from outside the squad. Rory Burns and Jos Buttler played themselves out of contention. Sam Billings and James Vince might have something to offer this group, but not as captain straight away. Broad is 35, and will only play in certain conditions.

In the Caribbean, Ben Stokes – who is an instinctive leader with a sharp tactical mind – has re-emerged. With his injury issues easing, he looks fitter and more focused than in Australia.

There are drawbacks; we saw how his cricketing forefathers, Botham and Flintoff, went in the job; the issues of mental wellbeing that contributed to his break last year will not magically disappear, and he would need a strong support network around him; he already has huge responsibility, so perhaps it would help if he returned to No6, his favourite position, where he can return to his reactive best.

It is worth wondering too if Stokes, fiercely loyal, would agree to take over from his great friend Root if he was fired. Stokes is not a perfect candidate, or guaranteed to improve things. But it is time to give him a go.

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