England showed areas of improvement at Lord’s but one fact remains: they still trail one-nil.
To win back the Ashes, England must win the series. That scenario is being made tougher by the loss of form of one of their key players.
For many years, there has been a heralded quartet at the top of the contemporary batting tree. Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root have been bracketed together and dubbed the Fab Four.
In recent times, that pre-eminent group has been reduced to a trio. The man who has fallen off the pace is the England skipper.
Root has been in a batting malaise for more than 18 months and it shows little signs of abating.
A first-innings 14 at Lord’s was followed by a first-ball duck in the second dig. It leaves him with 99 runs at 24.8 from his four innings in the series and has him seventh on the list of leading run-scorers.
Smith is dominating the field. His three innings have produced scores of 144, 142 and 92 – 378 runs at 126.0.
Before the series, both Root and Smith were identified as the key batsmen for both sides. Smith has held star billing while Root has been an extra.
He entered this Ashes campaign on the back of six lean series – away to New Zealand, West Indies and Sri Lanka and at home to Pakistan, India and Ireland.
Through that span, which started in March 2018, he averaged 34 from 30 innings, while his career average has dropped from 53.3 to 48.3.
Entering the Ashes, there was concern for both the frailty and inexperience in the England batting order.
Jason Roy was coming off a maiden Test against Ireland, Rory Burns had a seven-Test average of 22, Joe Denly had played three Tests for an average of 24, Jos Buttler averaged 36 from 31 Tests, Jonny Bairstow was coming off a pair versus Ireland and had averaged 27 in his past 38 innings, and Ben Stokes’ previous 26 innings had produced an average of 29.
With those figures in mind, Root took it upon himself to move from four to three in the order. It was a strategy designed to provide stability and experience between a nascent opening combination and Joe Denly at number four.
It has not borne fruit.
Between Tests, Root tinkered with his technique by altering the alignment of his stance. It was a clear sign of a man who is struggling to reclaim his best.
He has not come under the intense scrutiny that such a protracted lean spell would normally attract due in the main to the faltering nature of the rest of the batting order.
Allied to that is the fact that he is skipper. That may need to be looked at the by the England selectors at the end of this series if he does not arrest the slide.
Root succeeded Alastair Cook as skipper for the home series against South Africa in mid-2017. His tenure started in a blaze of glory, peeling off 190 in his first innings as captain at Lord’s.
Since then, a further 29 matches at the helm have produced 2033 runs at 38.4. His career average prior to becoming skipper was 52.8.
Leading an international cricket team is not an easy caper. The performance of some men flourishes with the added responsibility, while others – like Root – suffer a severe drop-off.
Prior to losing the captaincy, Smith’s period as leader produced phenomenal results. He averaged 51.8 prior to becoming captain and 70.4 across the 29 Tests while at the helm. Kohli (+21.6) and Williamson (+11.0) have also been far more productive while captain.
For the likes of Rahul Dravid (-9.2) and Sanath Jayasuriya (-4.8), the captaincy became a burden that they relinquished to others.
Root, and England, may be better served if the captaincy was handed to someone else. That will not be an option before the end of the Ashes series.
It may not be countenanced at all if Root can recapture his best before series’ end.
He needs to if England are to reclaim the Ashes.