England's Joe Root waves to the crowd after winning the match against Sri Lanka
Joe Root’s undefeated 79 helped England cruise to a 1-0 lead in their ODI series against Sri Lanka on Tuesday. In other circumstances, it would have been lauded as a fitting way to mark the remarkable landmark of 150 one-day internationals.
Instead, the very absence of acclaim for Root, with English sporting attention diverted elsewhere, was apt, in keeping with a phenomenal ODI career hidden in plain sight. To give a sense of the rarefied company in which Root is keeping in ODI cricket, consider that only three players with 100 caps – Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Michael Bevan – average more.
Root averages a towering 50.8 in ODIs, and his adaptability is such that he actually averages slightly more outside England. No Englishman scored more than Root’s 556 runs during the 2019 World Cup triumph. That Root’s brilliance has been comparatively overlooked reflects his role in the side.
In a batting order brimming with bravado, Root, no matter his baby face, frequently resembles the only grown-up in the room. He is the side’s designated driver, charged with making sure that everyone gets home in one piece. Yet Root’s status as the side’s anchor is, in many ways, one of the greatest symbols of the evolution of England’s ODI cricket.
While average scores have risen in this era, Root’s strike rate of 87 is higher than Kevin Pietersen or Marcus Trescothick. Root essentially performs the same role in the side as Ian Bell did until the 2015 World Cup – but Root averages 13 more and has a strike rate of 10 more. It is true that Root has been a beneficiary of the pyrotechnics around him in the order, which have enabled him to glide along relatively unobtrusively.
But Root is also an enabler of the mayhem: the insurance that he provides empowers those around him to attack. Given the extraordinary power-hitting capabilities of the rest of the order, in a sense Root’s gifts – to score at not far off a run a ball without looking as if he is venturing beyond gentle cruising speed – are the rarest and most valuable of all. While England’s ODI top six have had reserves of the quality of Alex Hales and Sam Billings in recent years, there has never really existed a plausible back-up to Root’s role as all-court anchor player, supreme against allcomers.
In ODIs, Root averages at least 49 against all Test nations bar Australia. He is almost devoid of any discernible weaknesses: against all types of bowling – right and left-arm pace and spin alike – Root averages at least 43. Whoever the opponent, whatever the attack and whatever the pitch, Root’s genius is to score with haste while eschewing risk.
There is an ongoing – and sometimes a little tedious – conversation about Root’s pursuit of greatness in the Test game, and what he needs to do to secure it. But it is a tag that he long ago claimed in the limited-overs game. He averages seven more than Steve Smith in the format, and three more than Kane Williamson.
The complaints about Root’s conversion rate have never extended to the limited-overs game: he has 16 centuries to go with his 34 half-centuries. His berth in an all-time England ODI XI was long ago assured. If there is not really a defining Root innings in ODIs, in many ways, that is the point: he has made everyday excellence come to look mundane.
There is no better illustration than in the preternatural calm with which he manages run chases. Root averages 80 in victorious run chases, and has been undefeated 17 times in those games. The great irony is that it is Root’s achievement to marry brilliance across the Test and ODI formats that have obscured his place among the pantheon of ODI greats.
Were limited-overs cricket all that Root played, perhaps he, like Eoin Morgan, would have received proper appreciation for his ODI exploits. Instead, Root’s 50-over career is curiosity: he is a 50-over titan, an indispensable member of the first England side to win the ODI World Cup, and yet his achievements are treated like a mere footnote to his Test career.