Joe Root believes there is now a greater “outside” impression that he is the right leader to take the Test team’s fortunes forward into a new era, after overseeing England’s second away win in consecutive matches in their innings-and-53-run win over South Africa at Port Elizabeth.
Though Root himself starred with the ball with four second-innings wickets in the third Test, he turned the praise onto two of his new-look team’s youngest players, Ollie Pope and Dom Bes, who, at the age of 22, played crucial roles with bat, ball and in the field to deliver a 2-1 series lead with only Friday’s fourth Test at the Wanderers to come.
The pair’s efforts followed the maiden Test century that Dom Sibley recorded in England’s second-Test win at Cape Town two weeks ago, and with the injured Jofra Archer also chipping in with a five-wicket haul in defeat at Centurion in December, England have now had four players aged 25 or under with a significant milestone on this tour.
And with England now on the verge of their first series win since Chris Silverwood took over as head coach in October, Root believes that the quality and range of the performances augurs well for the rapid development of his squad.
“That is a really strong effort,” Root told Sky Sports, “and a strong message to the rest of the guys that that anyone’s capable of doing something special out here. And that breeds confidence within the whole group.”
England’s victory was founded on their first-innings total of 499 for 9, in which Pope’s maiden Test century came for the most part in a 193-run stand for the fifth wicket with Ben Stokes, before Bess’s five first-innings wickets pushed South Africa towards the follow-on.
“I think this game has been a brilliant template for us moving forward,” said Root. “Big first-innings runs, a big partnership in there, and then really driving the game. I couldn’t be more proud of the group, and for the young lads to be stepping up yet again, and showing that they’re more than capable to perform at this level.”
Asked if he felt as if this was “his team”, Root replied: “It absolutely does, and it has done for a while. I think the fact that we’re starting to see results now might make it look like that from the outside, but I very much feel like the guys are listening to my message, the way we want to play the game. And now, because we’re starting to see results, it’s really feeding through the group and long may that continue.”
At the age of 29, and with more than 7400 runs in his 91-Test career, Root is living proof of the rewards that are on offer to England’s young players if they seize their opportunities in the Test team, just as he himself did with a fifty on debut in Nagpur at the age of 21. And as a consequence, Root believes that the squad newcomers are particularly eager to absorb the message from the team’s leadership.
“More than anything, they’re very willing to listen and very willing to learn,” Root said. “Not that the other guys aren’t, but they haven’t seen any other way, if you like, and we’ve got a really clear direction of how I want to take the team forward. The guys that have come in have responded really well to that, and when you start seeing results that starts really hammering home the message.
“But it’s not just the youngsters,” he added. “It’s the senior guys that are still learning as well. Broady, yesterday and this morning, was finding different deliveries and being open-minded enough to not just run and bowl seam-up, but legcutters and cross-seam balls, and trying different things. At his age, to still now be finding ways to take wickets on flat ones, is really impressive.”
One of the more memorable off-field moments of the Test came when the cameras panned to Root in the dressing room when Pope, on 74, was reprieved via DRS after an on-field lbw. The captain’s desire to see his young player push on to his maiden hundred was tangible, and Root admitted it was an important achievement for the team that he went on to do so.
“I think everyone’s been in that position where you desperately want something,” he said. “You could see how he’s a wonderful talent, you know he’s got such a brilliant game on him, and when you see someone with that ability, once they believe it themselves then I suppose the sky’s the limit for them.
“You don’t want to get to that position where other players have been, with five, six, seven fifties, and the feeling that it’s never going to come. But for Ollie to do this week was a massive marker for himself and for Test cricket in general really, seeing a very talented young player show that he’s ready for this. He wants to be very hungry for runs and make it count when he gets in.”
Bess’s achievement was, in its own way, even more remarkable, given that he hadn’t been part of England’s original squad, as well as his lack of consistent opportunities at county level since making his Test debut against Pakistan in 2018. He claimed each of the first five wickets to fall in South Africa’s first innings – a remarkable feat for any bowler let alone an offspinner – before adding Anrich Nortje on the final morning for match figures of 6 for 87.
“He’s had a remarkable journey but he works incredibly hard at his game,” said Root. “He’s gone and played on loan [from Somerset to Yorkshire] at different times to make sure he’s getting the cricket that he needs, and he probably could do with more if we’re being brutally honest, as could a lot of spinners around in the English game. But he’s been given an opportunity to go away and work at his game with guys like [Rangana] Herath, and he’s come back with a lot of different deliveries that he didn’t have last time he played for England.
“He’s come back into this team, worked very well with Jeetan [Patel, spin-bowling coach], and he thinks very well about the game. He’s very smart for a youngster.”
Looking ahead to the Wanderers on Friday, Root admitted it was hard to say whether Archer would be fit after missing the third Test with an elbow injury, but said that the squad was fully focussed on finishing the job they have started, and signing off from the Test series on a high.
“It’d be a great achievement for this group of players [to win the series] and I think more than anything it would be a massive step in the right direction,” he said. “I think we’re nowhere near the finished article, we’re very aware that we’ve got a lot of learning to do, but we’ve got a lot of youngsters that are willing to do that. And we’ve just got to keep looking to get better.”