Smith on Root’s flight to Ashes oblivion
ENGLISH and Australian cricket teams travelling eastward from Perth were spread across a number of flights, although it so happened that the captains found themselves in the same business-class section, separated by an aisle and a row.
Joe Root sat by a window cradling his infant son, Steve Smith was plugged into his phone, both in their respective leisurewear. So much in common; such, at the moment, different trajectories.
Smith has the Ashes in his hands; Root has ashes in the mouth. Smith's team is the toast of his land; Root's is toast. Nobody is calling for Root's scalp, for his team's task was always an uphill one.
All the same, he seems on an opposite roll. 'Winning is a habit, I believe,' he observed in his published account of the 2015 Ashes series, in which he was player of the series. 'Unfortunately, so is losing.' The Ashes of 2017/18 are proving that sentiment ever truer.
Ahead of time the Ashes were popularly framed as the head to head of two prentice captains - probably the first of a few. Just as Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke had three duels, it was possible to foresee 26-year-old Root duking it out with 28-year-old Smith for some time to come.
In fact, it has been a catchweight contest, individually as well as collectively. Smith's average punch (142) has helped take three consecutive rounds off England; Root's (29) has bounced off a thick Australian hide. Root has now lost all seven of his Tests down under and is yet to make a hundred here - that's a tendency turning into a habit right there.
Root's first tour here four years ago was really the first setback to what had been a gilded career. He arrived as Cook's opening partner, having done the job in the northern summer, then at the last minute was demoted to number six. In the first Test, he recalled in his book, he was uprooted by Mitchell Johnson and whirled around by the gusts of Gabba hostility: 'It was almost too much for me, if I'm being honest'.
It was only the beginning. Root was not alone in being unsettled by the Australians' verbal incontinence: 'When Australia are on top they can get to you. One of their strengths is that they get tight as a team, become very vocal and aren't particularly nice with what they say'.
But he was the one who began looking least himself. In the corresponding Test in Perth four years ago, he was sawn off in the first innings, guilty of an ill-advised review in the second. By the Sydney Test, he was an onlooker.
It's popularly imagined that such experiences toughen a cricketer, provide a motivation, stiffen his backbone and/or upper lip. Yet it remains unclear whether such cricket suits Root. One of his appeals has always been that he plays with a smile.
When he cannot, a little something leaves his performance, and his inspiriting example. He has found himself on this tour dealing with events that would bring a frown to any captain's face, responding to them with a growing world-weariness. The boyish Root, the reputed dressing-room prankster, the cheeky chappy and sock snipper, is nowhere to be seen.
Also absent from the dressing room, of course, has been Ben Stokes, who slotted in as vice-captain when Root succeeded Cook earlier this year, and who is a talismanic personality and cricketer round which others rally.
Root retains strong and familiar support: assistant coach Paul Farbrace, for example, was his coach in the Yorkshire second XI. But Root has found himself taking up the morale slack. Michael Vaughan, a close confidante, said that as England captain sans Stokes this summer Root would have to 'lie a bit' about his team's chances. He has tried.
After Brisbane, he insisted that England had outplayed Australia 'the majority of the time' on the first three days; after Adelaide, he described England as 'massively in the series'; after Perth, he said the margin was 'not a fair reflection' of how England have played and their 'really good performances'. But this last one was an application for the vacancy left by Chemical Ali.
The chief disappointment, however, has been Root's batting. He scoffed last month when Nathan Lyon said that the Australians were 'targeting' him. Yet Australians have been expert at potting visiting captains. Cook, MS Dhoni, Brendon McCullum, Misbah ul-Haq, Mahela Jayawardene, Jason Holder - none of these recent visitors have left this country with reputations enhanced.
Perceptions have been accentuated by his rival. Smith has adapted to pace, bounce and conditions - his slowest Test hundred in Brisbane, his quickest in Perth. Root has become caught up in scoreboard scenarios, batting in each case under the cosh, coming in at 127, 17, 31, 54, 89 and 29 respectively.
In 2015, he took advantage of the Australians' attacking lengths and fields, striking at 67 per hundred balls; here he has been cut back to 53. In Brisbane the bowlers probed away at off and middle and trapped him on the crease; in Adelaide, they dragged him wide, aware that his instinct would be to assert himself; in Perth, again in search of runs, he succumbed to leg and off-side strangles.
This will hurt Root's professional pride. He began the tour bracketed with batting's big beasts: not just Smith but Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, too. He is falling away from that company in important measures, notably his conversion rate of 13 hundreds from 47 fifties, and his distribution of scores, with only one second-innings hundred.
When performance begins paling as games go deeper, questions of fitness and concentration arise. His mortal stroke on Sunday afternoon was a shot that reeked of fatigue bordering on ennui.
Quibbling with his captaincy has so far taken a low-key: it is the depth in his ranks and that state of England's game that make for richer talking points. But if England should incur defeat in Melbourne and Sydney, they must hope he is a Cook, who bounced back from his team's 5-0 defeat, rather than a Flintoff, who did not. England's captaincy can wear you out quickly.
As Root disembarked in Melbourne, he was still wearing his sponsors' cap and hoodie. This is a job where you're never off duty.
This article originally appeared on Sky Sports