Ashes 2017: Players in focus – Captains Joe Root and Steve Smith

In the first of two articles this week looking at key figures in this Ashes series, MM investigate the importance of the England captain Joe Root and his Australian counterpart Steve Smith.

Joe Root

Currently ranked by the ICC as the second best test batsman, Root (above right) has exemplified that he has all the qualities to become one of England’s greatest ever players.

In February 2017 it was announced that the 26-year old Yorkshire man would be taking over test captain responsibilities from opener Alastair Cook following his decision to step down from the role.

So far the rookie captain has excelled, captaining England to comfortable series victories over South Africa and West Indies this summer.

However, Australia will undoubtedly prove to be a much sterner test for the 80th England captain.

With pivotal all-rounder Ben Stokes missing through suspension and a number of top order batting issues to be resolved, Root has a huge responsibility to not only individually perform, but also to inspire his team to success.

Steve Smith

Following Michael Clarke’s retirement in 2015, Steve Smith has fully embraced his role as Australia captain, leading his side to series victories over New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan.

Initially selected for his bowling capabilities, Smith made his international test debut in 2010 against Pakistan, batting at number six and seven, before gaining a place in Australia’s 2010-11 Ashes side.

Despite now being ranked as the ICC’s number one test batsman, it hasn’t always been an easy ride for Smith. The New South Wales man was dropped for two years following a string of low scoring efforts against England back in 2010-11, in a series where he only averaged 31.80.

Since being handed a second chance, Smith has never looked back, now boasting an impressive test career average of 59.67 over 104 innings, scoring a whopping 21 half-centuries and 20 centuries since 2010. Only Joe Root has made more test runs in this time.

With many cricketing experts tipping a tight contest, Smith’s batting prowess and leadership credentials will truly be put to the test if he is to lead the Aussies to victory.

Joe Root v Australia

Since making his international test debut in December 2012, Root has been a phenomenon of English test cricket, possessing an impressive test average of 53.77 runs over 110 innings.

Sheffield born Root has appeared in three previous Ashes series, helping England to home victories in both 2013 and 2015.

Compared to recent top order England batsmen, Root boasts a fairly impressive scoring record against Australia, picking up 991 runs over 27 innings at an average of 41.29.

Root’s finest performance against the Aussies saw the Yorkshire man grind out 180 runs from 338 balls to lead England to a 347-run victory at Lord’s in the second Ashes test of the 2013 series.

On the other hand, Root has not always fared well against Australia, limping to a succession of low scoring innings, including a 2 and a 4 during England’s last tour down under.

However, if the England captain can rediscover the form that saw him pick up a substantial 134 and 60 run tally in the final test of the 2013-14 tour, Root will be stood in good stead against a threatening Australian bowling attack.

How will Root fare this Ashes series?

In 2017 Joe Root has often found himself to be the leading man in England’s batting line-up, providing insurance in an often shaky top-order.

Moreover, recent form suggests that Root has the capability to perform well down-under, averaging 57.63 against South Africa and 67.00 against West Indies this summer.

With 13 test centuries and two double centuries already to his name, Root should be expected to be the driving force in England’s batting line-up.

Furthermore, as selectors are likely to pick just one spin bowler, Root’s often handy part-time spin could provide useful strength-in-depth to England’s bowling attack.

Root has previously fared relatively well against Australia’s current bowlers, with Mitchell Starc taking the England captain’s wicket a total of four times from 15 innings, Josh Hazlewood twice from seven innings and spinner Nathan Lyon gaining Root’s wicket three times in 23 innings.

Given Australia’s characteristically fast pitches, Root will have to deal with an oncoming pace onslaught. On the other hand, if he is able to get his eye, Root could perform at his very best.

However in his role as captain, Root not only has the burden of personally succeeding, but also has the pressure of managing team harmony, dealing with travelling English media and most importantly avoiding off-field scuffles that have dominated recent cricketing headlines.

If England want to have any hope of retaining the urn, the on-field performances of Root will have a massive impact in determining England’s overall success and in proving many doubters wrong.

Here is a video of some of Root’s finest batting performances in an England shirt:

Steve Smith v England

Smith could be said to be English at heart, albeit deep down…his mother is English, born in Kent and the Australia captain surprisingly holds a British passport.  He even had the chance to play internationally for England, but turned it down.

However, Smith has assured everyone that his loyalties lie firmly in the Aussie camp.

In his 18 test matches against England, Smith has attained an average of 43.19 in his 34 innings, including four centuries and a double hundred.

Smith’s Ashes highlight came when he scored 215 runs from 346 balls at Lord’s in 2015 to spur Australia to a monumental 405 run victory and to draw his side level in the series.

Despite high scoring efforts, Smith has only managed one Ashes series victory in four attempts; however this year will be his first as captain.

Surprisingly, Smith has a higher batting average playing in England than in Australia. In 2010-11 Smith averaged 31.80 and in 2013-14 Australia’s skipper averaged 40.88 on home soil. Abroad, Smith picked up averages of 38.33 and 56.44 in 2013 and 2015 respectively.

How will Smith fare this series?

Despite a winning start to Smith’s tenure as captain, he has only guided Australia to four series victories out of eight, losing to Sri Lanka and India away, recently drawing to Bangladesh and losing to South Africa at home.

Most recently in Bangladesh, Smith could only manage a relatively measly average of 29.75 over four innings.

Just a week ago, Smith top scored for New South Wales, picking up 127 runs off 166 balls in his club sides victory over Western Australia, putting out a warning to incoming England bowlers.

Whilst Smith has been known to score well on flat pitches, such as at Lord’s and the Oval during the 2015 Ashes series, the Aussie captain has often underperformed on seaming tracks and quicker pitches.

If England’s top order can get at Smith while the ball is still fresh, the Aussie captain could potentially find himself under pressure, especially given James Anderson and Chris Woakes’ recent performance history.

But as the ICC’s number one ranked batsman, rated higher than both Root and India’s Virat Kholi, Smith undoubtedly has the skill and finesse to lead Australia to victory almost singlehandedly.

If England want to have any chance of retaining the Ashes, disrupting the rhythm of Smith and fellow batsman David Warner will be key to success.

Take a look at Steve Smith’s famous 215 knock at Lord’s in 2015:

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