Root relishing responsibility but top-order troubles remain as England begin new era

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Joe Root's maiden series as England Test captain ended in a resounding 177-run win over South Africa to secure a 3-1 success.

Heavy victories at Lord's, The Oval and here at Old Trafford were punctuated by a similarly crushing 340-run loss at Trent Bridge.

Overall, it was a largely positive debut series for the new skipper, whose next assignment comes in the form of three home Tests against a beleaguered West Indies outfit.

But problems persist for this still inconsistent England side and, with an Ashes trip to Australia looming later this year, we take a look at where the team stand in the fledgling stages of the Root era.

 

ROOT RELISHING RESPONSIBILITY

There were questions prior to the series as to how Root would cope with the extra weight of captaincy on top of the already significant burden of being the side's best batsman. Counterparts Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have all flourished in their leadership roles and Root is more than worthy of his place on a pedestal beside that trio, but it remained to be seen whether he could follow their example in revelling in the added responsibility. Those doubts were emphatically put to bed at the very start of the series, however, as Root made a majestic 190 in the first innings at Lord's. He finished the four Tests as comfortably the top run-scorer from either side with 461 at an average of 57.62.

 

TOP-ORDER TROUBLES TAKE THEIR TOLL

It remains a conundrum most confounding for England and their selectors. Root and Alastair Cook are shoo-ins, but genuine candidates to take the other two places in the top four are proving near-impossible to find. Keaton Jennings, after the high of his debut hundred in India last year, averaged less than 16 in this series alongside Cook as opener. Gary Ballance's recall to the fold yielded 85 runs at 21.25 and a broken finger. Tom Westley did make a fifty at The Oval but has failed to convince, while Dawid Malan's 35 runs from two Tests did little to suggest dropping Jonny Bairstow down from five to seven is a long-term solution. With the Ashes three months away, England desperately need to find a solution, although they are hampered by a dearth of quality batsmen coming through at county level.

 

MARVELLOUS MOEEN AN ALL-ROUND GOOD EGG

In the post-play media conference after day three, Moeen Ali described himself as "still a batsman who bowls a bit". That was after his sparkling counter-attack with the bat had taken the game away from the tourists. But it is hard to take Moeen at his word after his contribution on Monday. South Africa were going along nicely, a fourth-wicket stand of 123 between Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla slowly raising hopes of a most unlikely victory. But just before tea, Moeen's off-spin accounted for Amla, Quinton de Kock and Theunis de Bruyn and suddenly Protea heads were slumped again. Despite his protestations, Moeen is developing a reputation as a genuine all-rounder, alongside Ben Stokes. He finished with 5-69, ending the series as the top wicket-taker for either team with 25. Not bad for a batsman who bowls a bit.

STOKES' MATURITY WHEN IT MATTERS

From a hot-headed locker-puncher to irreplaceable vice-captain, Stokes' development within the England side has been admirable. After crashing South Africa to all parts during his devastating 258 in Cape Town last year, Stokes played arguably a more impressive innings against the same opposition at The Oval in the third Test last month. With the series locked at 1-1, Stokes walked to the crease with England wobbling on 120-4 and rescued the situation with a superb 112 as the hosts made 353 to set up victory. Later this year, he will return to the scene of his debut Down Under and England will need him to be able to display similar composure in what are sure to be trying conditions.

 

POST-ANDERSON ERA NOT TO BE FEARED

Despite having recently celebrated his 35th birthday, James Anderson looks as sprightly as ever. He was superb in the first innings at Old Trafford, his 4-38 breaking the back of South Africa, although he remains without a Test five-for on his home ground. But even the seemingly ageless Anderson cannot outrun Father Time, and eventually England's leading Test wicket-taker will send down his final delivery. When he does so, England have the bowling depth to cope. His long-time partner-in-crime Stuart Broad is only 31 while the likes of Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Toby Roland-Jones, who made his debut so impressively at The Oval, are all the right side of 30.

 

AND WHAT OF SOUTH AFRICA?

The Proteas are almost a mirror-image of England. Blessed with an array of bowling talent, they are capable of ripping through any side in world cricket. But Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander can only do so much if the top order continues to falter. Amla, Du Plessis and De Kock are all classy operators but were largely out of form on this tour, while Heino Kuhn's debut Test series looks likely to be his last after 113 runs at 14.12. AB de Villiers will be welcomed back into the line-up with open arms, while two matches against Bangladesh starting late next month could prove crucial in finding some answers before Australia visit for four Tests in March.