JOE ROOT must find a magic formula for taking wickets overseas if he is to fulfill the dream that consumes his captaincy.
Root’s avowed goal is to regain the Ashes in 2021-22 but, on this evidence, they have little or no chance.
Beating the Aussies in Australia is the Holy Grail for Root. It will define his leadership. The shadow of the Ashes is cast across every Test, every selection meeting
But, once more, England’s bowlers struggled on flat pitches with the hated Kookaburra ball away from home. They lost the series 1-0 to New Zealand after the Second Test here was drawn.
In fact, they struggled so badly their strike-rate of a wicket every 115.7 balls is the worst for any England team in any series in history.
It is higher even than the 114.5 deliveries they needed on average to dismiss Aussie batsmen in the six-Test home series of 1989.
So not even Jofra Archer’s explosive pace, Stuart Broad’s skill and experience, Sam Curran’s swing or Ben Stokes’ lion heart could find ways of getting out Kiwi batsmen.
These are alarming statistics. You can bet the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins will take wickets more frequently than every 115.7 balls when the Poms come knocking in two years’ time.
And here’s another stat. England have failed to win a Test series in a calendar year for the first time since 1999, if you discount the one-off victory over Ireland.
England re-booted Test cricket after the World Cup triumph. Red ball rules now but progress has been minimal, maybe even non-existent.
Root says he learned a lot in the two matches against the Kiwis but much was surely learning negatives.
He would have learned, for example, that new opener Dom Sibley has a suspect technique, Jack Leach will probably never be a match-winning spinner, Ben Stokes’ knee continues to bother him, Jos Buttler still under-achieves in Test cricket and Archer found life tough on his first tour.
These questions and many others will dominate Root’s thoughts in the ten days – yes, just ten days – before England leave for their next tour of South Africa.
England had little hope of forcing victory on the final day because the weather forecast was so bad.
But they failed to take a wicket in 41 overs before the rain arrived and Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor both reached centuries.
Taylor saw the weather closing in so whacked Root’s spinners for 4, 6, 6 off successive balls to reach three figures.
There was an unbelievable, near-comedic, moment when Joe Denly dropped the biggest sitter of all time at mid-wicket to reprieve Williamson off Archer. The ball was travelling slowly at knee height but Denly somehow spilled the chance.
Root said: “I’m sure Joe won’t hear the end of that one for a while. I think it was just a one-off goober that doesn’t happen very often.
The guys tried lots of different ways to get something out of that pitch but I think it would have been a draw even without any rain.
“After the First Test, we spoke about a couple of guys going on to make hundreds and we did that here with Rory Burns and myself.
“The really pleasing thing is players such as Ollie Pope played outside their natural game. He showed maturity and played within himself a little. A lot of the other guys can learn from that.”
Root added: “I think Jofra will learn a huge amount from this tour, I really do. He’s an extremely exciting talent and has so much to offer Test cricket and this team.
“I’m sure it won’t be long before we see him tearing it up again just as he was in the Ashes.
“This is the first time he’s bowled with a Kookaburra ball in these conditions on very flat surfaces. He’s found there are a number of ways you have to operate and you need to show resilience and keep putting in time and time again.
“To be fair to him, he did that. He’s bowled a huge amount of overs and continued to keep trying. He showed a great amount of variety today sometimes bowling with no front arm plus knuckle balls and bouncers of different paces.
“I’m sure he’ll learn very quickly, like he always has in his short career. I’m confident we’ll get the best out of him soon.”
Root will speak to Moeen Ali in the next couple of days and ask if he is prepared to tour South Africa.
Moeen was dropped from this tour and lost his lucrative central contract.
He could instead continue to play in T10 and T20 tournaments in the coming months. England are expected to announce their squad for South Africa on Sunday.