Joe Root has returned to the scene of his Test debut as the best England batsman of his era and arguably the world’s most complete player. What now?
As Joe Root heads back to India, where he made all three of his international debuts either side of Christmas 2012, it’s easy to reflect that not much has changed. The looks were cherubic but the talent, clearly, was seismic. His Test debut went exceedingly well, with 93 runs for once out in the series-sealing draw in Nagpur. Things are still going exceedingly well.
Of all his outstanding achievements since, Root’s greatest trick has been to live cricket like the rest of us. He makes batting – right down to the boring bits like running between the wickets – look fun, and you’d definitely want to be standing next to him in the slips. When he’s out, he huffs back to the pavilion, then sits on the balcony with his chin in his hands like mum’s just told him that no, you’re not having chips for tea. The childlike gratification the game brings has remained in Root in a manner few other pros manage.
And yet overall it’s a very different Joe Root heading back to India. He’s engaged, and no longer shares a bachelor pad with Gary Ballance. There’s a beard, of sorts, and while he’s still willowy and wiry, his arms are bigger (and hairier, too). He’s also England’s captain-in-waiting, top-order pivot, and very possibly the most instantly adaptable, all-round batsman on the planet. As he chats to AOC, he’s considered, speaks slowly. He’s almost statesmanlike.
You’ve come a long way since that 2012 tour, haven’t you?
It does feel like a long time ago. I was the little boy. Going into that dressing room it felt a bit like a kid winning a competition to spend a month or two with his heroes. I remember rocking up at the airport and being very starstruck meeting all the lads before we flew. So it is a bit different now seeing guys in a similar position to me, when they are coming on a tour like this, trying to get their feet in the door in international cricket. I can really relate to how they are feeling. [Growing more animated] What’s really exciting, actually, is seeing it from a different perspective, and understanding all the feelings you go through in that position. Especially Has [Haseeb Hameed], I see a lot of myself from 2012 in him. He’s small, very young, and hasn’t played a huge amount of cricket at first-class level.
What did you take from that tour?
Nick [Compton] got the nod for the first Test, and from then I didn’t think I would play, but at no point did I feel out of my depth. What I realised was what a good opportunity this was to learn from loads of experienced players and coaches, and from what was going on in front of me – the guys playing out in the middle, the way they went about their practice. My game developed rapidly on that tour, having all that at hand so I could speak to Cooky, speak to Kev, Trotty. All these guys who had done great things in international cricket. With Goochy, and Mushy, learning how to play spin and having the bowlers’ insight into how they would try to get you out, a subcontinental way of playing spin too. I was getting a broader view of the game than just an English one.
Then, you were an opener in first-class cricket. Now you’re a dynamic No.3 across all three formats. The innings that you played against South Africa in the World T20, for instance, is not one people would have imagined coming from the 2012-model Root. What’s changed?
It’s been a slow development over a long period, starting even before that tour. When I played my first game of ODI cricket for England I didn’t bat – I was batting down the order – and bowled nine overs. I had only played 20-odd games of List A cricket, so I had to learn on the job, and that helped. I do believe you develop quicker when you have that experience around you, watching live, facing these guys in the nets. The way I was then, if I was coming into the white-ball team now I wouldn’t last very long! In ODI cricket, we look at 350-plus batting first on a good wicket.
Who do you speak to about batting, and how do you practise? Do the world’s best top up their strengths or fix their flaws?
I’ll speak to anyone who’s around, really. I like speaking to Jos [Buttler]. The way he goes about his white-ball batting is quite exceptional. It’s important to speak to the opposition when you get the opportunity – I was lucky enough to get 20 minutes with AB [de Villiers] about how he does his thing. But just watching guys on telly too. Kohli, Smith, Kane Williamson – chatting to him when he was at Yorkshire – that was helpful. Within our squad I’m very lucky to have a bloke with the number of runs Cooky has, who has been through every feeling you can go through in cricket. I wouldn’t always necessarily talk to him about the process of batting, but everything else that the game throws up.
Practising, I try to make sure my strengths are as good as they can be. Then I try to top up the things I need to brush up on. That was my problem in Australia when we got battered 5-0. I spent all my time trying to improve things that I was doing wrong, and neglecting all the things that had scored me runs. Before I knew it I couldn’t get it off the square again, and I didn’t know where my next run was coming from.
Ah, Australia. The speedbump. The way Root talks there, with such certainty about his first – and only – low ebb in international cricket, makes you wonder if he views being removed from the firing line (read: dropped) in Sydney the way, say, Alastair Cook now sees his dumping as ODI captain ahead of the 2015 World Cup: bloody painful at the time but a blessing in disguise.
“No,” says Root. “Definitely not. I just could never look back on being dropped as a good thing. But I do accept it was an important moment. What it did was give me a kick up the arse, and rethink the way I was going about my business. That was when I started pushing my strengths, and changing that way of thinking and practising definitely helped. There are days now when I will turn up to a game when I don’t feel great at all in practice, but I go back to that method, just thinking about what I’m good at.”
Initially, this was not easy. From Sydney, there were the ODIs, “where I played even worse”, before being dropped, then the T20s “which really weren’t great either”. On his return, chats with Michael Vaughan and Worcestershire’s Kevin Sharp, his old coach, helped, with both saying: “Call upon the things that work, and simplify it down to that.”
England went to the West Indies for a largely forgettable ODI tour, but in the third game, Root scored 107, the first of his eight ODI tons. Already, only Kevin Pietersen (9) and Marcus Trescothick (12) have more. In his next Test, against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in June, he made an unbeaten double ton at No.5. He’s since moved to No.4, then this summer to No.3, from where he scored his second double century, against Pakistan at Old Trafford, his finest innings yet.
The move to first drop – domain of the gun – was, some said, utterly overdue; others felt it compromised England’s most important batsman. What of Root himself? He thought it too good a chance to turn down. “It wasn’t a long-term plan, but it had been mentioned before,” he says. “It’s something that fell into place nicely. I was very comfortable at No.4, but this summer felt a good time to take a bit more responsibility, with a few younger guys around and the winter we have. It was time for me to step up.”
If 2016 Root’s workload has been upped – not just as the batting order’s fulcrum in all three formats, but as captain-elect – it is also regulated, with a dicky back at the front of the minds of all involved. Being rested, as he rightly was for the successful ODI leg of England’s tour of Bangladesh, is something he understands, but can’t stand.
“I struggle with that,” he says. “You’re sat at home, watching. That’s hard. But… you also have to remember how it feels when you’re knackered and drained, and sometimes you have to think that if you do play in those games, you’re potentially doing your team a disservice further down the line. It’s the right thing to do, it’ll happen again and again, the amount of cricket we play. It’s very important to make sure when you are playing international cricket, you can give 100 per cent all the time.
“There are two sides. You’re not just desperate to play, but you feel like you’re missing out on a good craic in the dressing room or at the hotel, and that makes you desperate to join back up with the team, and make the most of it when you’re there. That helps with missing home for such long periods of time – I mean, it can be tough, but ultimately you’re travelling the world playing international sport with some great mates.”
Such maturity and responsibility is reflected at home, where, when afforded the opportunity, he likes to go incognito. We hear this plenty about sportsmen but, away from the game, Root really is normal. He likes playing golf, watching telly, and doing a weekly shop. What is abundantly clear is that his off-field ascent to adulthood has underpinned his cricketing coming of age.
“As a 19, 20-year-old, finding my feet,” he says, slower still. “I moved up towards Leeds to be a bit closer to the ground and me and Gaz [Ballance] had a great year living together – it was only a year, it felt like a lot longer. We weren’t particularly tidy, no.
“I think it’s important to move away from home, fend for myself – and fend for Gary half the time, as well. As a cricketer on tour, everyone looks after you, you put your laundry outside the door, you never cook. By being away, also when I spent six months in Adelaide, you learn to do things on your own, to think for yourself. You really need that skill on the cricket field.”
India, then. Root’s eagerness is obvious, not least because of that rest. “The hardest bit is waiting for the games to come,” he says, laughing, tapping his fingers, shuffling his feet as if to hammer home the point. This is the day before the first Test in Bangladesh, and he’s greedily keen.
It’s time, he feels, with the likes of Hameed and Ben Duckett about and with him being one of just two centrally contracted batsmen, for another puff of the chest and rise in responsibility. While “it doesn’t really feel” like he and Virat Kohli are going head to head, he knows how decisive his own output is going to be.
“More than anything it’s taking the responsibility of being a senior batsman in such an exciting batting line-up,” he says, gritty again. “That Pakistan series, a lot of pressure was put on me and Cooky to score heavily, and I think that’s how it should be. If we’re to win in India, our senior players – like me – need to stand up and perform. It’s that simple.”
Later in the day, Root is speaking to the wider media with that Test a few hours closer, and it feels intriguing and instructive to hear him describe this as his “first proper tour of the subcontinent”. He’s been here before, but this is a very different Joe Root.