Joe Root: ‘We can build up to the Ashes – there’s no excuse this time’

The ODI series against South Africa is next in line but England’s Test captain is already looking ahead to the big prize in Australia

Joe Root returns to England duty on Friday in the first one‑day international against South Africa but he is honest enough to admit the 2021-22 Ashes series – “the opportunity of a lifetime” – is occupying plenty of head space.

Root was not part of England’s 3-0 win in the Twenty20 series, but the 29-year-old still harbours a burning ambition to make the squad for October’s World Cup. He believes trying to match the power-hitters has been detrimental to him and now hopes his finesse will prevail. However, Test cricket remains the primary focus and Root remains on course to become the first Englishman since Johnny Douglas in 1920-21 to lead two Ashes campaigns down under. Mike Brearley twice led tours of Australia, but the urn was not at stake during the hastily arranged 1979-80 series.

When asked how much he is thinking about the Ashes, Root said: “There’s no point hiding from it or trying to make it look like we’re not focused heavily on it, because we are. A lot of thought and planning has gone into things.

“But it doesn’t mean we’re not looking at what’s coming up this winter [tours to Sri Lanka and India] and, while they’re not similar conditions, some of the challenges we’ll face will stand us in good stead when it comes to walking out at the Gabba.

“Guys will be readying themselves for that, the opportunity of a lifetime. We have a good chance to build up for it. [The drawn home Ashes series in 2019] was difficult, with the World Cup beforehand. But there’s no excuses this time. Get it right and we could be in a really strong place going out there.”

Root’s first Ashes series as captain three years ago resulted in the urn being meekly surrendered in a 4-0 defeat. The vice-captain, Ben Stokes, was absent following the infamous Bristol incident, a boozy narrative dogged the tour and Ricky Ponting struck a nerve when comparing Root’s soft-spoken leadership to “a little boy”.

Root said his captaincy has grown since then. “I was still getting to grips with the role. Off the back of it I had quite a difficult year, maybe not reflected in terms of results [England beat India 4-1] but trying to work out what method sat best with me and what suited the team best in terms of how we want to play.

“In the last year or so we’ve settled. That’s given us something to draw back to and compare ourselves against, rather than just thinking about outcomes all the time. It will be tested in Sri Lanka and India but that’s exciting. Keep improving and it’s another string to our bow when it comes to Australia.”

Root will pay “a huge amount of attention” to Australia’s forthcoming Test series against India that begins on 17 December in Adelaide, with nine Tests against the latter next year and the home side set to hand debuts to two promising rookies. David Warner’s groin injury means the 22-year-old Will Pucovski is due to open following 495 runs in three Sheffield Shield innings, while in Cameron Green they have a new all-rounder whose batting has drawn comparisons with Ponting and, though returning from a stress fracture, bowls fast-medium from a 6ft 7in frame.

“It will be brilliant to watch two of the best teams in the world going at it, but also the immediate challenges of India, the conditions in Australia and a few new players,” Root said. “All the information we can gather will be vital.”

Looking at the immediate challenge of South Africa in 50-over cricket, however, Root has three shots at ensuring 2020 is not his first full calendar year in international cricket without a century in any format. “I’ve not hit my straps the way I’d like to – in Test cricket in particular – but having had this break, I’ve looked at a number of things to change and work on. You have times when your game is tested, you have to adapt and that’s where I am now.”