There is a terrifying moment in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner where the crew of the mariner’s ship, lost at sea under a merciless sun, are visited by a mind-blowing vision: a ghost galleon containing only the figure of Death and a sad, pale woman.
Alone on their putrid deck, Death and the sad, pale woman – who to be fair, probably expected something more along the lines of cabaret and a buffet – play an arbitrary game of dice for the lives of the (already dying) crew.
Literary scholars have argued for centuries about the meaning of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem. And while there is no hard evidence Coleridge ever intended his vision of him as an allegory for the state of English men’s red-ball cricket in the late Joe Root captaincy era, well, the imagination is certainly a mysterious place.
As Root’s resignation brings to a close the last two years of desiccated decline – no coach, no selectors, management speak everywhere but not a drop of leadership – it is hard to avoid the sense of something equally lonely and equally doomed in his final course through that dying sea as England’s Test captain.
As of Friday morning there is at least some overdue closure. That last sad, pale figure has vacated the deck, all played out after 64 matches and five difficult years. And for all concerned Root’s resignation will bring feelings of relief above all. Most obviously for Root himself, whose time as captain has been remarkable on two fronts.
First, for its basic longevity. In many ways the only significant, or even noteworthy thing about Root’s captaincy was the fact he managed to do it for so long. “Root holds the record for the most number of matches and wins as England Men’s Test Captain,” was the top line from the ECB, dishing up the usual spin and puff even here.
This is technically true. But then if we’re going to play that game Root also holds the record for most losses by an England captain, and by some distance. Only two men have ever lost more games as Test captain of any nation in the history of cricket. Root’s loss-ratio is higher even than the pre-modern Mike Atherton era, when the playing XI was culled from whichever 12 names the selectors could scrawl on the back of a committee room menu after a particularly gruelling lunch.
The numbers only ever tell apart from the story. But they do bring us on to the second remarkable thing about Root’s England captaincy: the fact it is still apparently necessary to have a debate about whether he was any good at it or not. The short answer to this is very simple. No. I wasn’t.
This has nothing to do with the fact Root was, is and will remain a nice person and a gracious competitor. It does n’t detract from the sublime quality of his batting from him, where he is on another plane, arguably England’s greatest of all time given his numbers in every format and the fresh air between Root and everyone else on the same pitch against the same attacks.
But captaincy is a distinct and highly complex thing, and above all a matter of getting the best out of others. Five years on, it is still hard to pick out what a Root team was meant to look like, how it planned to win, what its defining features were outside of hysterical collapses with the bat and periods of drift in the field.
Blame the players by all means. But those who have been in international dressing rooms will also point to the vital role of leadership when this happens. All teams run to some extent on vibes, energy, plans that become good plans just because everyone knows it’s the plan. There were obvious details too, like captaining spin bowlers, which remained an embarrassing blind spot. The use of Jack Leach in the first Ashes Test was up there, as howlers go, with allowing Jofra Archer to bowl a career-maiming 42 overs at Mount Maunganui.
None of this was malicious or a lack of application. Often Root just seemed a little too gentle up close, too agreeable to do the ruthless, risky things that amount to leadership. Often he would reply to difficult questions by saying the issue was “above my pay grade”, where in reality, nothing was above his pay grade, as the highest-paid individual in the history of England cricket.
This was the frustration, and indeed the paradox of Root’s longevity; the sense of a leader helplessly caught up in wider tides of change. The most bizarre discussion around his extended departure has been the insistence that England’s team is so poor, its cricket so degraded, that the captaincy has become irrelevant, that what is happening here is an existential crisis in the red-ball game, that England do not deserve to seek out a slightly better Test captain.
In reality it is remarkable what a difference those fine details can make, just as the England captaincy is not some holy garland to be clutched on to in perpetuity, or passed down only to those with the right sense of officer class permanence. Frankly Matt Fisher could have got the gig for the last 17 Test matches and England wouldn’t have done any worse.
At least in its sense of drift Root’s England has captured the essence of the age. But his departure from him was essential for other reasons too. Mainly because this arcane old code has to have consequences and jeopardy – one win in 17 has to matter – or frankly the gig is up and what we’re left with is matches that simply die away, where Ollie Robinson is playing a lap sweep as his stumps explode and an Ashes series is gratefully euthanized out of existence.
As for next things, Stuart Broad would be a hugely entertaining mistake. Ben Stokes will probably get it. And who knows, a little change of energy, a shifting of the deckchairs on the ghost ship deck might just draw a few more breaths of wind in those raggedy sails.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism