There were two remarkable pictures doing the rounds on social media a few weeks ago. The first featured Joe Root's Test stats up to August 2016. It read: 80 innings, 3875 runs, 56.15 average, ten centuries, 21 fifties, and a highest score 254. Next to those numbers were those of Virat Kohli, which read: 74 innings, 3238 runs, 46.25 average, 12 centuries, 12 fifties, and a highest score of 200.
The next picture included numbers, since then, that tell an entirely different story. Root has 3901 runs from 96 innings at 41. Compare that with Kohli, who has 4002 runs from just 71 innings at 61.56 with 15 centuries, and two things are emphasised - Kohli has improved drastically as a Test batsman but Root, after a fabulous start to his career, is on the getting worse. In fact, Root's decline as a Test batsman is so much so that many believe he is no longer a member of the 'fab four' with Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson and has no been taken over by Pakistan's Babar Azam.
Of course, Root remains England's premier batsman who can still turn it on, as his 226 in New Zealand and several half-centuries before and since then have shown, and his Test average remains at a very respectable 48.11. Yet he does not seem to be producing anywhere near the consistency that made him one of the finest players in the world during the first half of his career. Conversion rate has always been an issue (only 17 of his 66 fifty-plus scores have been turned into hundreds) but the fluency and relentless run-making ability seem to have slowly diminished.
So why has this happened? How has a player of such talent and ability endured such a decline? The first argument is that the captaincy is weighing him down. Despite being on an impressive run of six wins in his last seven Tests as skipper, Root's own performances with the bat have been inconsistent. The pressures of Test captaincy are well documented, and while some have thrived on being able to lead from the front (Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, to name a few), others have found it a burden and their batting has suffered as a result. This could be what is now happening to Root.
Is Root's decline more of a technical problem? There is an argument to suggest it is. While he initially thrived with his classical side-on stance and punchy off-side play, bowlers, as is so often the case in Test match cricket, worked Root out and began bowling straighter and fuller, bringing lbw, bowled and the outside edge into play. There is even a video on Cricket Australia's YouTube channel in which Pat Cummins talks about how Australia were aware of Root's technical flaw, so, after bowling several tempters outside off-stump, he bowled an in-swinger and Root, falling over to the off-side and playing around his front pad, was trapped plumb in front in the first Ashes Test at the Gabba during the 2017/18 series.
Perhaps Root's decline in form has gone under the radar due to the issues of other batsmen in the side. Joe Denly, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali have already lost their places, while Rory Burns is having an inconsistent summer and Jos Buttler has only just clung onto his place, thanks to a pair of recent half-centuries. Yet even Buttler, whose place in the Test side has come under severe scrutiny in recent times, has a better average at home (36.46) than Root (34.10) since his return to the side in 2018.
It says a lot about Root's talent and skill that he is still able to churn out scores despite such technical issues but you would be forgiven for wondering how many more runs he could score if he made adjustments to his set-up. Previous batting coaches Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Thorpe have been reluctant to change the techniques of batters in the England set-up and have instead focused on the mental side of the game. Yet the increasing number of players choosing to see private coaches in order to improve their games speaks volumes about the trust, or lack of, between the players and the batting coach(es) in the England set-up.
Whether Root makes such changes remains to be seen. Though his decline now seems like much more than just a dip in form. England's Test side look to be going places, yet they need their premier batsman back to the levels the made him one of the finest players in the world. There is always a solution, and it's now up to Root to find it.