Root ready for England’s biggest challenge after successful summer

It has been a successful first summer as England captain for Joe Root. Two series victories against South Africa and then Windies were just what the doctor ordered following a drawn series with Pakistan last home season and a poor winter in Bangladesh and India. It was not perfect, two poor defeats interspersed between the victories, but it will do. Next up, though, is the ultimate challenge for an England cricket team: an away Ashes tour.

England approach it in decent fettle and probably better placed than they were at the start of the summer. Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali have both kicked on as Test match cricketers and Root’s own form has not been hindered by the captaincy. James Anderson has been at the peak of his powers and Alastair Cook’s form has been strong, including a double hundred at Edgbaston. Toby Roland-Jones has come in to the team and looked at home at Test level.

Set against those positives, however, are the continuing travails of England’s top order. Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan were selected for the Windies series but none of them made the big score which would have given them breathing space and neither did Keaton Jennings or Gary Ballance earlier in the summer. England will have wanted their top five nailed down before the Ashes but it is not worked out that way. The batting places will likely exercise a lot of the selectors’ time when they meet to pick the squad.

For now, Root is happy enough. “It’s been great,” he said of his first summer in charge. “We’ve played some really good stuff this summer. Two difficult weeks [during the two defeats] but what’s most pleasing is the resilience and the character that we showed to come back from both of those with two extremely strong performances. The manner we won after that is great to see ahead of what is going to be a very challenging winter.”

Despite two poor performances in defeats to South Africa at Trent Bridge and to Windies at Headingley, Root expressed himself “happy with the way the whole group is shaping up” and was particularly pleased how the likes of Moeen, 30 wickets and 361 runs, and Stokes, with three fifties, two hundreds and a six wicket haul, had made telling contributions. “Across the summer, a number of guys have taken their forward,” said Root. “That’s what you want: guys who are settled in the team to keep kicking on and contributing consistently.”

How England will fare in the Ashes, which begins in Brisbane on November 23, remains to be seen but England’s captain is confident his team can put up a good showing. “There’s plenty of challenges that lie ahead but it gives us a great opportunity,” Root said. “As a side, we’ve done some good stuff this summer where we shouldn’t be afraid of going over there and if we perform at our best doing something really special. We’ve got all the attributes that could go down there and put some strong performances in.”

Key to their fortunes will be James Anderson who was outstanding throughout this summer. The last 18 months have been dogged with injuries but the 35 year-old played all seven Tests, taking 39 wickets at 14.10 including a career best 7-42 here at Lord’s. “He said at the start of the summer that he’s desperate to carry on and play as much as he can for England,” said Root. “He’s one of the most skilful bowlers I’ve ever played with. He’s relentless pressure for the batters.

“500 wickets doesn’t happen very often but this summer has been unreal for him. If he’s bowling like that, you definitely want him to play as much as you can. Broady’s bowled some really good stuff this year and not had a lot of luck. Between them, the pressure they create is fantastic. What a partnership to have going to Australia.”

Before England head down under they have a five match limited overs series against Windies and a one-off T20 next Saturday (September 16). Perhaps of more relevance to the selectors, though, will be the three remaining rounds of the County Championship. With positions in the batting order still up for grabs, runs for the likes of Westley and Malan could yet be important. Alternatively, other candidates such as Haseeb Hameed and Alex Hales can make a late bid for inclusion.

England have done what they needed to do this summer but the upcoming challenge in Australia is an altogether more difficult proposition than either South Africa or Windies were able to pose. Whether they are good enough or resilient enough to retain the Ashes remains to be seen.

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