LAST WINTER Ricky Ponting famously accused Joe Root of looking like “a little boy” who was “a bit soft” during England’s Ashes defeat.
The former Australia captain said that Root needed to “step up big time” and criticised him for being “too shy”.
Almost a year on, and Root has come of age as England’s leader, responding to those words in the best way possible.
Victory in the second Test against Sri Lanka in Kandy not only gave his side an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series, but it was a ringing endorsement for his captaincy and the way that he is developing the team.
England’s seventh Test win in their last eight games – a sequence that began with an innings victory against Pakistan at Emerald Headingley in June – felt like a particularly significant triumph for the Yorkshireman.
The 4-0 defeat Down Under last winter is now a fading memory – as is that fateful day when Root’s men were dismissed for 58 in the first Test against New Zealand in Auckland that followed the Ashes, when England sunk to their lowest ebb.
Root held a two-hour team talk after that match, outlying his demands and plans for the future, and neither he nor his side have looked back since.
England narrowly failed to win the second and final Test against New Zealand in Christchurch, and, although they did lose the opening Test of the English summer, against Pakistan at Lord’s, their victory at Headingley squared the series before world No 1 India were thumped 4-1.
After England made light work of Sri Lanka’s tail on day five in Kandy, requiring only 31 minutes to take the last three wickets to secure a 57-run victory that followed a 211-run triumph in Galle, Root reiterated his desire for England to eventually usurp India at the top of the rankings.
This series win – Root’s first overseas as captain, and England’s first in Sri Lanka for 17 years – has lifted them from third to second in the rankings above South Africa.
Although he is still learning tactically, he is also getting better at manoeuvring the field and managing people and displays a calming influence not dissimilar to that of his great friend Michael Vaughan, in whom he could have no finer captaincy role model and shoulder to lean on.Chris Waters
Although India remain a little way in front, the signs are that a new side – built around the leadership core of Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler – is growing by the game, and in a manner redolent of England’s one-day team under Eoin Morgan.
Root acknowledges that he has tried to learn from the one-day captain, who has helped to turn England from World Cup flops only three years ago to red-hot favourites for the tournament that comes to these shores next summer.
At the same time, Root accepts that England’s Test side have some way to go and are not yet the proverbial finished article.
There have been too many top-order batting collapses, too many failures overseas, to permit over-reaction to this latest triumph.
The batting remains a work in progress – and far from settled in terms of its order – and there remains the question going forward of just how do you replace James Anderson and Stuart Broad?
England need to be more consistent in different conditions throughout the world and this is not, in fairness, a great Sri Lanka side.
But with Ponting’s criticism now sounding out-of-date, along with that of Shane Warne and Graeme Swann, who have also questioned Root’s suitability as captain, there is no doubt now that this is his team, rather than the one that belonged to Alastair Cook.
Root looks increasingly like a leader of stature, while any suggestions that he is “a bit soft” can be emphatically dismissed considering that he has not been afraid to make some ruthless selection decisions at times, including leaving out his Yorkshire team-mate Jonny Bairstow for the Kandy Test.
While Bairstow could yet return for Friday’s third Test in Colombo, perhaps in the poisoned chalice position of No 3 which, ideally, Root would occupy, the captain is steadily growing in stature.
Although he is still learning tactically, he is also getting better at manoeuvring the field and managing people and displays a calming influence not dissimilar to that of his great friend Michael Vaughan, in whom he could have no finer captaincy role model and shoulder to lean on.
Ponting’s criticism of Root last winter was mainly inspired by what the Australian thought was a lack of respect for his captaincy among the squad, as evidenced by the various off-field shenanigans that blighted the tour.
In reality, it was perhaps more a lack of respect by the individuals concerned for their own status and the responsibilities of being an England cricketer, for there is no doubting the respect for Root that now exists.
On this tour, the players have responded to the plans and strategies that he has devised – not least playing in a bold and adventurous fashion, evidenced by the way that the batsmen have attacked Sri Lanka’s spinners, particularly with the sweep shot.
Better still for Root, he has backed up those plans by leading from the front, his second innings 124 at Kandy earning him the man-of-the-match award and emphasising once again – as if emphasis were needed – that he is one of the greatest batsmen in the world.