Possibly Even Better

When it comes to the England team of 2015 - the England team which ultimately regained the Ashes with ease - there are plenty of players, and themes, to talk about.

There are many questions to answer. Some are easy, others are more vexed.

Just how good could Ben Stokes go on to be? Answer: Very Good. Possibly even better than that.

How good a bowler, how good a cricketer, is Stuart Broad? Answer: Very Good.

Who is going to open with Cook in the long term? Answer: Don't Know.

Who is going to be England's next specialist spin bowler? Answer: Don't Know.

How long has Ian Bell got left? Answer: It depends, just as it always did.

Elsewhere there is greater certainty. Increasingly, it seems, there are fewer questions to answer about Joe Root. He is already very, very good, and he may possibly be even better than that.

Over the forty years or so I've been watching England, a question which has occasionally preoccupied me, even in the days when we barely had a respectable team, is when we would produce our next truly great batsman. Our Tendulkar, our Lara, our Ponting.

Gower was unique. Gower, especially in his early years, was often extraordinary. But he wasn't quite great.

Pietersen was a player of great innings, as, in his different way, is Cook. These are people who have touched rare heights, but they haven't quite made it to the summit, unless Cook is considered as an opening batsman alone.

There was a time when everyone thought Ian Bell was going to be the man. And he should have been, he really should. Bell had both the talent and the technical equipment to join the ranks of the truly great, but there has always seemed to be something missing. Something hard to define, but recognisable by its absence. Now it is clear that for all his occasional charm and elegance and undeniable quality, it will never be found.

As Bell walked away from the Trent Bridge pitch, early in the afternoon of the most one-sided day of Anglo-Australian Test cricket any of us is ever likely to see, there was something which signified this. Bell, as has almost become commonplace, had been dismissed for 1, lbw to a characteristic inswinging yorker from Mitchell Starc. As he left the field he was shaking his head and muttering to himself. In a small way these have become his trademarks. Suddenly the hazy sunlight caught the lines in his features and, for just about the first time, I realized that Ian Bell, in cricketing terms, is starting to look old. He is 33, and he will hopefully play many more fine innings (for a player of fine innings is ultimately what he has become) for England.

But he will never be truly great.

It is significant that Bell was replaced at the crease by Joe Root. Joe Root, at 24, has age on his side and he has already found the peerless consistency, weight of scoring and versatility of performance across the formats which have eluded all his peers and predecessors. The certainty of footwork, the soundness of temperament, evident from the early overs of his debut innings in Nagpur, are all there. There is a relative surfeit of elegance, but great players don't need this. Functionality and runs are what they need, and Root has both those in spades.

He can also, for good measure, bowl serviceable off-spin, and he catches everything. Although he has the sense of purpose and instinctive hardness of the natural born Yorkshire pro, he has lost none of the unfettered enjoyment of playing the game which he grew up with. He looks good, he interviews well, he is certain to be England's next captain. If you stop to think about it he feels like the most outstanding cricketer his country has unearthed in many a long year.

Of course, questions remain. How will Root deal with better bowling attacks, and with adversity? This winter, you suspect, both those will test his mettle.

What is his best position in the batting order? So far, with his compatriots in the middle order failing to match his consistency, England have sometimes seemed guilty of wishing to have him batting everywhere at once. For the time being, four seems fine, although a move to three will continue to hang in the air for as long as Ballance remains outside the team and Bell struggles for regular impact.

There is also the nagging feeling that he can't go on like this. England players don't simply go on averaging fifty.

Great players do, though.

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