By SB Tang
Everybody loves Joe Root right now.
And who wouldn’t?
Since being dropped for the fifth Ashes Test in Sydney in January 2014, Root has plundered 1530 runs — including five hundreds, four of which were of the monster, unbeaten 140-plus variety — in 14 Tests at an average of 76.50. He’s ascended to sixth in the ICC Test batting rankings and the England vice-captaincy — all before his 25th birthday.
However, Root’s recent run of superlative form disguises a longstanding, fundamental flaw in his batting technique that has been exposed by Australia’s world-class fast bowlers before and is being exposed by them again in this Ashes series.
Put simply: Root camps on his back-foot against quality pace bowling, which makes it extremely difficult for him to step forward to drive fluently off his front foot when the ball is pitched up on at least a good length between the off and fifth stumps. This brings all three main modes of dismissal into play: nicking off, LBW and bowled.
This technical flaw was first exposed in the back-to-back 2013/14 Ashes when Root came face-to-face with a genuine world-class pace battery for the first time. In 18 innings, he passed fifty just three times and averaged 33.18. Of his 16 dismissals, 10 were to a ball on at least a good length from a paceman — bowled twice, LBW once and nicking off seven times.
The common denominator in all 10 of those dismissals?
Root was marooned on his back-foot, tentatively coming half-forward and fishing with his hands — the exact same pose that he was in at the moment of his two cheap dismissals, nicking off for 1 and clean bowled for 17, at Lord’s last week.
This back-foot camping stems from a lack of balance, which is exacerbated (and, arguably, caused) by Root holding his bat up high above his waist at the approximate point at which the quick bowler releases the ball — a very English trait, popularised by Tony Greig and Graham Gooch, that can be seen in the batting technique of every single member of England’s current Test top eight.
By contrast, the traditional Australian way — followed by 14 of Australia’s top 15 run-scorers in Test and first-class cricket, as well as the world’s current best female batsman, the Australian captain Meg Lanning — is to gently and rhythmically tap one’s bat on the ground, raising it no higher than one’s shin, at the point at which the bowler releases the ball.
The Australian method enables a batsman to automatically centre their weight and evenly distribute it across both feet, thereby freeing their mind to focus entirely on the ball being hurled 90 miles per hour at them. Without a gentle, rhythmic, low bat tap, a batsman is like a man standing face-forward on the very edge of a cliff: he must consciously and constantly think about his balance and weight distribution — even as Mitchell Johnson is about to fire a missile at his head. Little wonder then that batsmen who, like Root, hold their bat up like a baseballer at the point of the bowler’s release, tend to struggle with their balance.
There is a second substantial benefit to the Australian method — because the batsman only starts his back-lift in earnest after his eyes have assessed the line and length of the ball, his hands and feet move in sync into the optimal position to play that particular ball. By contrast, batsmen who adopt the baseball-style bat-up method tend to lunge — like Mike Gatting at the sight of a cheese sandwich — at the ball with their hands (which makes them more likely to nick the ball or miss it altogether) because their hands, having already completed most, if not all, of their back-lift before the bowler’s even released the ball, are out of sync with their feet. It’s hard to perform two actions in sync when you’ve half-completed one action before starting the other.
Root’s back-foot camping was evident in the first two Tests. Indeed, his second innings at Lord’s was the perfect, self-contained case study of the flaw in his batting technique and how to best exploit it. The Australian quicks bowled three types of deliveries at Root: a stock ball on a good length between his off and fifth stumps and two change-ups, a wider, fuller, almost half-volley (to tempt him into a drive) and a vicious throat ball (to pin him back even further and/or tempt him into his favoured hook shot with two men out).
Root’s technique rendered him helpless against such a disciplined attack. He left the wide-volleys (which a well-balanced batsman would’ve driven for four), blocked or left the stock balls (some of which a well-balanced batsman could’ve pushed into the vacant mid-off and straight cover regions for a single) and generally tried to get out of the way of the throat balls (fair enough). This didn’t leave him many opportunities to score — Root faced 44 deliveries and played out 34 dots in eking out 17 runs. Thus, England’s most in-form batsman was unable to even rotate the strike and exposed his colleagues — the majority of whom are out-of-form batsmen or tail-enders — to a rampant Australian bowling attack on a fourth day pitch.
The end came when the 24-year-old Josh Hazlewood — Glenn McGrath reborn with an extra yard of pace plus superior batting and fielding abilities — bowled three consecutive stock balls at Root. He dead-batted the first ball on his back foot, left the second, and was clean bowled by the third which kept a fraction low because, camped on his back foot, he was unable to move forward or down quickly enough to meet the ball.
That lack of balance was Root’s undoing in England’s first innings at Lord’s too — having been pinned back by two successive throat balls from Johnson, he fished at and feathered a just short of a length ball angled across him.
In Cardiff, Root barely survived his first two balls of the series — he stayed back when he needed to come forward to Mitchell Starc’s good length in-swinger (and would’ve been trapped plumb in front but for the faintest of inside edges), then, feet stuck in cement, he clumsily threw his hands at a wide half-volley angled across him only to be reprieved by Brad Haddin’s drop. Thereafter, Root survived and prospered — but only because, as Josh Hazlewood later admitted, the Australian bowlers, rattled by Haddin’s uncharacteristic drop, “didn’t stick to our guns”, serving up a buffet of short of a length balls that Root’s technique enabled him to comfortably cut, square-drive and pull off the back foot on his way to match-winning knocks of 134 and 60. Australia’s bowling coach, Craig McDermott — whose enormously successful tenure has been defined by the three word mantra: pitch it up — wore a stony expression on the Australian team’s balcony.
McDermott responded by putting the Australian pacemen through gruelling training sessions bowling off their full run-ups in the lead-up to the second Test. The end result: at Lord’s, the Australian bowling unit executed their plans to all the English batsmen flawlessly. Root received no freebies and his technical flaw was ruthlessly exposed, as the Australian quicks stuck to the plan that they employed so successfully against him in the 2013/14 Ashes. He now has eight days to come up with a new response.
Root is a fine young cricketer who possesses the two most important attributes required to be a truly great Test batsman — mental resilience and an even temperament. That is why, unlike many modern batsmen, if bowled two or three good balls an over, he will happily leave them alone and patiently wait for the bowler to bowl the ball that he wants — basically, anything short of a length — whereupon he will attack with the back-foot shots — cuts, pulls and square drives — that his technique sets him up to play comfortably. That’s precisely what happened in Cardiff.
However, even a batsman of Root’s exemplary mental discipline can’t constantly play out five or six dots an over. His job, after all, is to score runs. Thus, if the Australian quicks stick to the plan that they employed against him in the 2013/14 Ashes and at Lord’s last week, he will be forced to do what his technique makes it so very difficult for him to do — drive on the front foot — and likely nick-off or get bowled for a low score.
If anything, the minor technical change that Root has made since the 2013/14 Ashes has made him even more entrenched on his back-foot. He now holds his bat higher than he did before, making it even more difficult for him to be evenly balanced at the point of release and thus able to smoothly transfer his weight onto his front foot. This technical flaw has yet to be fully reflected in his career Test average — which currently stands at an impressive 54.02 — because in his 29 Test career to date, he has played a cumulative total of just 11 Tests against the world’s only two truly excellent pace attacks: Australia (11 Tests) and South Africa (zero Tests).
Like most of the great Test batsmen before him, Root entered the Test arena with a technical flaw that must be ameliorated if he is fulfil his undoubted talent. Steve Waugh had to ditch the pull and hook shots. Ricky Ponting had to stop falling over to the off-side. Joe Root needs to stop camping on his back-foot against quality quicks.