Using data, analysis and insight is key to performance in both investing and cricket. Here, Ben Jones looks at the six centuries which defined the England skipper’s golden year.
Joe Root has spent the bulk of his career being criticised for his conversion rate. At the start of 2020, Root had converted just 26% of his half-centuries into tons, a rate that placed him among the least efficient converters in Test history. Only a handful of players with 10 tons or more – Misbah ul Haq, Alec Stewart, VVS Laxman, and Angelo Mathews – had a worse record. Unquestionably an elite batsman, this was a clear, obvious blot on Root’s career status.
And then, 2021 happened. Of the first seven innings where Root made it to 50, he kicked on to a century six times. By the end of the year, his conversion rate still stood at 60%, an emphatic improvement on his career record. Six centuries, in three countries.
228 (321) v Sri Lanka, Galle, January 2021
The year started with a bang. A double-century in Galle was a clear sign of things to come from Root, but it also stands in its own right as a magnificent showcase of everything he can offer as a Test batsman. Playing with assertive, attacking intent but matching it with control and authoritative charisma, this was hardly Root at his most pressurised, but arguably at his most fluent. The attacking shot percentage he recorded in the innings, 44%, is the second highest he’s ever recorded in a Test century, but alongside that he recorded his second lowest false shot percentage for a ton. Charging out of the blocks, with barely a foot wrong.
186 (309) v Sri Lanka, Galle, January
The venue didn’t change, thanks to a Covid-19 affected schedule, and neither did the level of Root’s dominance. A second hundred in as many Tests saw the England skipper lower his intensity a touch, playing slightly more cautiously, but with no loss of control. This was the second lowest false shot percentage he’s recorded in any Test century, just nestling in behind his effort a week earlier. Just as similarly was his commitment to the sweep shot – with 16% of his shots being some kind of sweep, this was the highest proportion he’s used the shot in any of his tons, barring the 124 (146) which kick started England’s previous tour of Sri Lanka, an innings where he swept a remarkable 25% of the time. This was primarily an innings which showed that, unlike most other English batsmen in Test history, you have to bowl the absolute best spin in the world to tie Root down in Asian conditions.
218 (377) v India, Chennai, February
This was an innings defined by the situation, the status of the challenge. Root had spent his time in Sri Lanka dancing around, a class above all those around him – on both sides. But this was rather different, the Indian attack depleted in the absence of Ravindra Jadeja, but not much more after that. Arriving at 63-2 following a flurry of wickets, Root dug in, applying himself to the context. After 50 balls he had scored only 11 runs, the fewest runs he’d ever made at that stage of an innings in Asia; no boundaries, and only two attacking strokes. After that – he went off. He swept, he drove, he cut, and Root accelerated through the close (in the Evening Session he was attacking 34% of his deliveries, well above the Test average of 25%) and into the next day. Root had spoken, regularly, about the importance of England making 600, 700 in the innings where they got a foothold, rather than being content with 400, 500. It was a flat surface,but part of the reason Root suffers by comparison to the other members of the Big Four is that, compared to the others, he plays on these surfaces quite rarely – and he took his opportunity on this occasion, and filled his boots good and proper. He led by example, and led England to their first win in India in almost a decade.
While the rest of the series didn’t go Root’s way as either a captain or a batsman, this ton – and the two before it – did reflect Root’s primary skill. More so than any English batsman of the modern era, Root is a natural player of spin, and his dominance across the rest of the year (averaging 87 against it) would also reflect that strength.
109 (172) v India, Trent Bridge
While the fourth century of Root’s annus mirabilis saw his return to home shores, it also saw him move away from the control that had defined those earlier innings. This was the most fraught, most risk-laden century of Root’s 2021. Not least because, had the Nottinghamshire weather not intervened on a soggy final day in the East Midlands, Root would have been staring down the barrel of a defeat in the opening Test of the series, and England’s sixth consecutive loss in the longest format; on top of that, the knock itself was defined by a man riding his well-earned luck. This was the second highest false shot percentage he’s ever recorded in a century, and this was not on occasion where the stats shone a light on unseen elements of the game. Root was ducking, diving, playing and missing, struggling. His fluency grew as the innings went on, no question, but his first 25/30 balls were a low base from which to start. And yet, these are the runs which Root has been accused of not making, the hard yard runs which drive results.
180* (321) v India, Lord’s
This was breaking ground in a new sense – the only one of Root’s Test tons to come in an England defeat. Each of the 21 centuries the England skipper had made to this point had resulted in, at the very least, a draw, but not at Lord’s with Kohli’s men rampaging. This was a solo effort against the dying of his team’s own light, a one-man rearguard. According to our Expected Wickets model, the quality of the deliveries Root faced in this innings was higher than in any of his other centuries in this format of the game, the barrage of ability and threat visibly too much for his teammates to cope with. The fact that Root pressed through it all, and emerged unbeaten but without a win to his name, is perhaps the perfect display of the disparity between his own quality, and that of his troops.
121 (165) v India, Headingley
Root’s final ton of 2021 came in more celebratory circumstances. In an England victory, and in front of an adoring crowd at Headingley cheering on a fellow Yorkshireman, Root got back to his tradition of victorious centuries. It came complete with a flairy, carefree manner – the Timing Rating for this innings, 219, was the highest recorded by Root in his 23 centuries. The measure reflects the degree to which the batters are in control of their shots, in comparison to how attacking they are – in essence, a more sophisticated version of false shot percentage. Root flung the ball around his home ground like a spider spinning a web, taking England’s stressless position and allowing himself a rare day of calm. As with Chennai, the series from this point would not follow his intended path, but this was a sparkling statement with which Root crowned his year of all years.
Of course, since then he’s set sail for Australia and, disappointingly for England fans or those of us who wanted this purple-patch to continue uninterrupted for as long as possible, the tons ran out. The runs didn’t, and as we head to Sydney the England skipper is still the highest scorer in the series on either side. But that elusive century on Australian soil still eludes him – indeed, no player in Test history has more fifties on these shores without making a ton. For all the celebration, for all the progress, there is still a frontier for Root to conquer.
Maybe that’s a good thing, all told. Root has had a great year, but while his fellow Big Four members have never matched the heights of his 2021, they have backed up greatness with greatness. For Root, 2021 will likely be the highpoint, but in terms of his ever-growing legacy as a Test legend, it’s just a start – he’s still got to convert. Figuratively and literally, as 2022 rolls around, Root’s starting on zero again.