Not yet 25, Joe Root has scored more international runs at this stage of his career than any Englishman in history. Phil Walker went to ask him how on earth he keeps it all together?
Ben Stokes is in his socks, lobbing a ball from one hand to the other and occasionally against the walls of Headingley’s indoor school. Unless we specifically tell you otherwise he’ll be doing this all day. He’s just spent the best part of an hour diving onto a crash-mat, with ball in hand, while a photography team made up of chief snapper Tom Shaw and his two assistants log and analyse every captured moment on their MacBooks. To the side, there’s a make-up artist, a handful of reps from the team that makes his kit, his manager and, sitting with AOC watching it all take place, his dad. Stokes Jnr, who obviously doesn’t do vanity, goes about the job wordlessly but with just enough focus, relying on the immense physicality that marks him out as the most potent presence in the building.
Mark Wood, eyes like gobstoppers, buzzes about the place, checking out the latest threads from the new range for 2016. There aren’t many outfits he won’t have tried on by the time the day is done. Watching on from the sides, Wood’s agent tells a story of trying to set up a meeting just after the Australia ODI series and his man wanting to meet at Ashington CC. He turned up to find Wood feeding the bowling machine to three 11-year-olds in the nets. It’s just a sweet little story, of a man as yet unhindered by fame mucking in with the little people, until you’re told he’d been up that ladder feeding balls and down that ladder retrieving them for at least a couple of hours. He adds that in the car that morning, driving to the ground, Wood had been buzzing about his first big photoshoot. The lad who took the wicket to win the Ashes still can’t get his head round it. “Me mam and dad cannat believe it either…”
Joe Root ambles into view. Bandy-legged, round-shouldered, head slightly bowed, and that smile, inside which the gentle absurdities of this life can be readily contained, never far from his face. You only notice him in order to wonder how unnoticeable the most noteworthy English batsman of this century can actually be. Maybe that’s why Australians want to punch him in bars. There’s a kind of stillness, held tight with those harnesses of unsnappable self-belief, which must infuriate those tasked with blowing him off course. It’s also why we’ve already known for years that he’ll soon enough be captain of his country.
On the first morning of the first Test of the 2015 summer, England, with a new broom and a lot to prove, had stumbled to 30-4 against New Zealand. Root and Stokes had then steadied a nervous and in certain pockets pretty mutinous crowd to get through to lunch without further loss. As the crowd settled back down for the big afternoon session, the TV cameraman whose job it is to film the players as they re-emerge onto the outfield tripped and fell over, kit going everywhere. Root, 49 not out, grabbed the camera from the turf and started mucking about with it, filming with it himself. When he’d had enough, he handed it back and bounded off to the middle. He made 98 that day and 84 on the Sunday, taking his average from five Tests at Lord’s to 86, as England won by 124 runs.
Wood, who’s shared a dressing room with him for a full season now, remains as baffled as the rest of us. Before Root goes out to bat, Wood tells us, flabbergasted, “He just chats as if everything’s completely normal! I’m a bucket of nerves, me! I cannat watch! But he’s absolutely fine, he’s keeping an eye on what’s going on but he’s mainly just having a laugh and a joke, until, right! Gloves on, helmet on, and he’s off…”
Does Root ever get nervous? “Yeah, absolutely!” And then, almost in mitigation at his inability to show even a trace of it: “I just love it, the whole occasion.” The italics are his. “I don’t want nerves to get in the way of me having a blast. I want to enjoy every minute, and be able to look back on my career and say, you know what, I didn’t let anything stop me from giving myself the best possible chance.”
Is he cocky? “I wouldn’t say so, I’d like to say I’m pretty down to earth. But I do think you have to have that inner self-belief and determination and drive to want to get better. I have a cheeky smile on my face and if it winds the opposition up then it works in my favour anyway, so who cares what they think?”
Can today’s ‘Sporting Gods’, or whatever we must insist on calling them, ever really be like us? And, better question, do we even want them to be? If sport’s just some leap from reality anyway, what’s the use being reminded all the time of the very thing that we’re fleeing? Perhaps a little distance is good for us. We do our thing, they do theirs, we get up in the morning and go to the office, they play catch for truckloads of money, and we all just crack on in our separate worlds, no?
It’s hard connecting us proles who watch from the stalls with the beautiful freaks who live it on the stage. Okay, so on Saturdays we get to wear the same kit, ‘to ape our heroes’, but ours is a stretched polyester replica from the merch shop that itches in all the wrong places, and while they definitely come from the same towns and cities as we do, they look different, talk and walk different, and exude a different air. We may be fed the line that these shimmering aliens are ‘just like us’, but only the willingly gullible (in their hundreds of millions) are prepared to go with it. The rest of us just embrace the otherness and work with it.
But while today’s magicians can still wow us with tricks of body and mind, it’s in the business of sport where the real sleight of hand takes place. Much of big-bucks sport today is about cover-up, news-management and image-projection. Is there a more cynical metaphor for football’s collapse than your club’s new signing kissing the badge because his super-agent demands it? Do real people, outside the worlds of motivational speakers and gym trainers, speak in the weird, fortified man-language of elite rugby? What messages about modern India can be gleaned from much of its cricket team aside from impressions of deep inequality? And as we’re at it, how does the computerised pageantry of Formula One even constitute a sport?
Acknowledging the chasm that lies between you (‘The Consumer’) and your average Saturday demi-god puts us all on pretty safe ground. After all, those monstrous egos rarely get left at the door. But every so often, a bunch of characters get flung together, they coagulate, they gel, some weird kind of alchemy thing takes place and the individual parts get subsumed to the collective to create something of spectacular potency. In the story of the English cricket team, that time may well be now.
“Andrew Strauss outlined what he was looking for when he came to power,” Wood says. “He was looking for an England that was more approachable to fans and the media. He said, ‘Look, we’ve got to make people proud, we’ve got to make people want to watch us’, to share in our success, because that will bring more kids into the game, so we’re all fighting the same battles, and supporters, players, media and management are all on the same page.”
Ged Stokes, ex-rugby league pro and proud owner of nine perfectly good fingers, has been dealing with the slings and amputations of sport on a professional level for most of his life. Watching his flesh and blood dive headlong onto a crash-mat as a photographer shouts “Beautiful beautiful, now let’s try that again” doesn’t strike him as especially odd. It’s just the industry. Earlier, while Wood was striking poses for his own set of photos, letting out the odd screeching appeal for a plumb lbw when it all got a bit too serious, the Stokeses went and had a net by the side, Ben ripping his (first-class standard) off-breaks at his left-handed father, who gave them everything he had. AOC had seen Stokes bowl his unhittable offies before, in the nets to Jonny Bairstow before the Trent Bridge Test. “Yeah, I was gonna bowl them in the [Australia] one-dayer,” Stokes says, like it’s barely worth a mention. “Me and Morgs had a chat about it. If Mo gets a side strain in the UAE, I’ll be putting my hand up.”
“With these lads,” adds Stokes Snr, after his boy’s been whisked away to sign another load of mini-bats, “they’ve known each other since they were kids, they grew up together, played with and against each other through the age groups. There’s no way they’d allow anyone to get too big for their boots.” He points to Root, shadow batting in the corner with one of the blades from next year’s range, and recalls how even from an early age everyone knew he was special. “The thing with Joe was, no one could get him out.”
It’s almost creepy how unaffected Root appears by the things happening around him. On the first day of the Ashes summer, after England had spluttered to 43-3, he made 134 from 166 balls, and a second-innings 60. In the pivotal third Test at Edgbaston, he made 63 and a match-clinching 38*. In the fourth at Trent Bridge, after Australia had capitulated under deathly skies in less than a session, he produced batting from a different plane to finish 124* at the close to secure the Ashes. He left Nottingham ranked as the world’s No.1 batsman.
“Yeah, for about three days!” he says. “I never really understood the ICC Rankings but it’s an honour to be in the company of the likes of AB de Villiers, Smith, Amla, Mathews, Kohli, Williamson. These are guys I watch in my spare time when I’m supposed to be getting away from the game! I’m in awe of the way they play the game, so to be considered in their company is very humbling.”
Can he point to what’s evolved in his game? “Not really. I’m going to give you about a dozen clichés here! Don’t look too far ahead, play the situation…” He tails off, the smile kicking in again to outline the real, fundamental change that’s made his game truly world-class. “I’m just trying to strengthen my character. To say, you know what, even if we’re 40-3 and we’re up against it, I’m going to take them on. If I get out early I might look like a bit of a wally, but I’m still gonna to take them on.”
Graham Thorpe, the ECB’s lead batting coach and a long-time observer of Root the technician, tells AOC the switch needed to be flicked: “Technically, when I first saw Joe play, I thought he may have been a little cautious, which is fine, but I think how he has grown is that he tries to be more proactive. His mindset has changed. I think his defence was always solid but I would say that he may have erred on the cautious side and quickly grew into recognising the importance of putting the bowler under pressure.”
“It sounds strange,” Root says, “but you don’t sit back and think about it at the time, you ride the wave and just go with it. It’s only in the last couple of weeks [after the Ashes finished] that I’ve had time to think about what’s happened, and I’m really proud of my own personal achievements, and to have been a part of what’s been an amazing team in an amazing summer. It gives you energy just thinking about it.”
The last time the England team felt this good about itself came after the 2010/11 Ashes win. But just a year on from that series, they went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to face a low-profile, typically unstable Pakistan team and were sunk. On the eve of the next series, all that stuff about avoiding complacency – in effect heeding the mistakes of the past – has become a cliché of the day.
Not unexpectedly, Root can’t wait. “We’re going to face quality quick bowling, quality reverse-swing and high-class spin! The ability to play the ball turning in and away at any given time is going to be hugely important. We’ve got a few weeks out there to adjust to the conditions and that heat, and for me to get my head around playing Test cricket again is really exciting.”
The squad, says Root, is overflowing with options. “We’ve got that wildcard with Ben Stokes who’s able to bowl and is a top six batter; guys like Jos Buttler who can win a game in a session and Moeen Ali as well. He’s a very aggressive player against spin and makes it look so effortless, like David Gower in the way he plays. It’s a very entertaining group of players. I mean someone like Gary Ballance, for him to miss out, I’ve got no doubt he’ll be back in the Test team in the future but his absence just shows how strong the squad is.”
For the moment he can just about hide his greatness in plain sight. It helps that Ben Stokes and others share the same turf. But before too long Joe Root will be made England captain (“Yeeeeah,” he squirms, “let’s talk about that next time…”), slipping in among his primary adversaries Steve Smith and Virat Kohli as the centrepiece of his country’s cricket and the frontman of this whole new English sound. The boy in the cap who blocked the life out of it on his Test debut in the heat of Nagpur (73 from 229 balls) has become in less than three years the most complete English batsman of this century. Now 25, he’s in love with his girl and his game, a double Ashes-winner, a masterful one-day player and the prince of Lord’s. The sages will say we should lay off him. But that’s the thing about having sloped shoulders; all the silt and stone just slinks away.