At just 22 and having already become the first Yorkshireman in history to make his maiden Test hundred at Headingley, Joe Root’s prime place in English cricket’s future seems assured. But what lies behind the cherubic darling of the development programme? Is he too good to be true? Ed Kemp went to Yorkshire to investigate.
When a kid who’s been talked up comes into the England side there are usually questions. Where’s he from? Who does he play like? What’s his weakness? Studious faces examine him, and the game’s most well-respected brows furrow in search of clues. Evidence is compiled, positions arrived at, then debated. He may or may not make it. But, occasionally – very occasionally – there seem to be no questions to ask. Sometimes there arrives a player so immediately and accomplished that he provides only answers.
I first saw Joe Root in August 2011. It was at Scarborough, the lovely old ground at North Marine Road on Yorkshire’s east coast, where he was making his debut for England Lions in a four-day match against Sri Lanka A. On the third day, in the Lions’ second innings, their slender opening batsman made 66, decorated with Atherton-like back foot punches and Vaughan-esque cover drives. Somehow he had only made his Championship debut earlier that year. I was interviewing the standout Lions man from each day – and today it would be this opener. When I went down to the old red brick pavilion and met him face to face, the reason for his inexperience became immediately obvious. He was only nine years old.
It was hard to believe the child standing in front of me was the same person whose crisp strokeplay and eye for a leave had so captivated just a couple of hours earlier. He was only averaging 30-odd in the Championship that year – but as the Lions coach David Parsons told me at the time: “If we picked purely on statistics he probably wouldn’t be here. But somebody somewhere – the selectors, the national lead batting coach [at that time, Graham Thorpe] – has seen something else in him.”
Since then things have moved on apace. At the end of only his second season in first-class cricket last year, Root was selected to join England’s tour party to India, ostensibly to compete with Nick Compton for the opening slot. Though Compton was preferred, Root so impressed behind the scenes that he leap-frogged both Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan for the No.6 spot when Samit Patel was omitted for the fourth Test, making 73 assured runs under pressure in the first innings, followed by 20 not out in the second, to help England secure a series win on debut. He was in, just like that.
“I’ve never been in here before, it’s good in’t it?” Joe Root is visiting the Yorkshire cricket museum at Headingley for the first time. It’s late April, he’s playing a practice match against Lancashire and, now that he’s out, we’ve brought him in here for a chat and a few photographs. All over the walls there are the names and portraits of Yorkshire’s illustrious sons, Hutton, Close, Boycott, Vaughan. As we set up, Root reads the histories, plays the interactive games; wonders, perhaps, if he’ll be up on that wall himself one day. To casual observers Root seems every inch one of those rare chosen ones, acting out a destiny: part of a lineage not only of Yorkshire greats but of ‘future England captains’. Yes, on the surface, he is an archetype; but spend a bit of time with him and you get to know an individual: level-headed, but bright and sparky, too: a talented boy with a bounce in his walk and a twinkle in his eye.
I want to talk about being young and brilliant. It might be a one-sided conversation. You’ve always been promoted through teams very quickly – fast-tracked through the system – but you seem always to thrive. Has it ever been a problem, being and looking so young? Have you ever been intimidated going into new team environments?
In general, no, but there’s two real occasions that stick out. The first is when I played my first men’s game. I’ve only got tall recently – at that time I was literally half the size of some of the blokes. I remember getting hit in the ribs when I was on about eight or nine in my first game, and everyone rushed over, quite concerned. The umpire said to me afterwards, ‘If anyone had appealed I would have had to give you out LB!’ I ended that innings about nine not out off about 15 overs. I was already digging in – Yorkshire style. The second one was here [Headingley, 2009] when I made my Yorkshire debut against Essex in a one-day game. I was really quite petrified then. Once I got out there on the pitch it sort of settled down and it was great, but I was very, very nervous. Those are the only times I’ve really felt that nervous and intimidated by the atmosphere.
And how did joining the full England set-up compare?
Well, India was a good place to start, because you have to spend a lot of time with each other and you end up getting to know each other pretty well. I got to know a lot of the lads and I felt comfortable really quickly. It was a bit surreal to start with: one minute you’re watching these boys on the telly, and all of a sudden I’m in the dressing room and going out for dinner with them.
But you missed out on selection initially. When you made the squad you must have thought you had a shout of playing…
Yeah, I knew I had a shout, but in the end we both played in the warm-up games and Nick got more runs than me. And he’d had a great year the year before. When I wasn’t in the team, I remember thinking, ‘Right, really work hard, and just try and be a better player by the end of the tour.’ They were my goals, and I ended up getting a game and going alright.
What was it like waiting to bat that first morning of your first Test? Was it very different from any experience up to that point?
Not really, the only thing difference was I was batting at six, and I’ve not really done that before. So it was more just sitting around, what do I do? I started playing with my bats for a bit, and messing around with my kit and having a laugh and a joke with the lads, and then you think, ‘Right, when do I have to pad up?’ I was like: [thinking] Four down, I’m going to be in, so I’d better make sure I get my kit on when we’re two down’ and stuff like that. You’re waiting, a wicket goes down and you walk out there. You know, I was so proud to be wearing the England badge and to be representing my country – and I didn’t want to ruin that by being nervous; I didn’t want to come off thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I wasn’t so petrified’. I just wanted to enjoy it, and make the most of it, and I tried to do that as much as I could. Everyone gets nervous I think, it’s just how you control it, and after that county debut here [Headingley], I never wanted to feel like that when I was playing cricket again. That’s how I went out in that first Test and it seemed to come off okay.
It wasn’t just Joe enjoying his sudden rise to prominence in the winter. For the Roots, cricket is very much a family affair. As his debut knock – a thing of discipline and calm ground out over 229 balls – unfolded, his proud parents and grandparents were watching an investment mature; his dad Matt tweeting pictures of his boy as a youngster, in the house and in the garden, bat in hand. His younger brother Billy was also there. Billy, a 20-year-old left-handed top-order batsman, is on the MCC Young Cricketers programme, on the fringes of county cricket himself. While following the cricket in India, Billy actually bumped into AOC editor Phil Walker, and judging by his high-spirited praise-singing of Joe – whom it seems he thought should be in the England team – he’s a firm supporter of his big brother (“That sounds about right,” says Joe. “He’d never been to India before and I think he discovered Kingfisher for the first time.”) Are they similar? “I think we’re pretty different to be honest. Especially in styles of batting: he plays a lot of shots and is very flamboyant, and I’m kind of boring and stodgy.” In the first Test of the summer against New Zealand at Lord’s – where Joe made an accomplished 71 in the second innings – his “best mate” Billy was alongside big brother Joe in the dressing room as 12th man.
The Root boys have been bred for success. Theirs was a classic cricketing childhood – dad Matt was heavily involved at Sheffield Collegiate CC, the club from where Michael Vaughan – as well as other notables – had sprung, and it was there, really, that Joe grew up. Matt had been a more than handy sportsman himself, and Joe and Billy used to follow him to all his games, constantly playing on the boundary, “getting told off for whacking it on the field and fetching it off in the middle of an over. We would be badgering all the guys that had got out or were batting at 10 and 11 to come and throw at us and bowl at us in the nets. It was a good atmosphere and a good place. I remember just loving going to watch my dad.”
And the older brother’s thirst for batting was unquenchable even then. Driven on by his family’s tireless support, he made his first hundred at 11 (“It was a school game and the smallest boundaries ever, you could block it for four – it was perfect for me”) and now, reflecting on the England debut, Root says, “It was really pleasing to see how happy they [the family] were as well. All the hard work that they’ve done, giving me lifts to training sessions up and down the country and taking me to games and throwing balls, and all those things, it’s great to give a little bit back to them.”
Most things have gone smoothly in Root’s young career. But the one time things really started to go wrong, when he was a late teen, it was Kevin Sharp, then the county academy coach, who helped restore the order. Funnily enough, it was all the result of the under-sized kid cricketer starting to become a man. “The first year I signed on staff , I kept falling over, and getting out LB. I must have got out LB about 20 times in a row, in all cricket: in academy games, 2nd team games, club games, and I just didn’t know where I was going to ever score my next run.
“I’d just signed on the pro staff , and I’d only signed two years and I was thinking, ‘Well that’s it, that’ll be it’. Kevin just laughed at me as I was telling him all this, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be a better player for it’ and he just kept encouraging me, working hard with me, and we worked out that I’d grown six inches in about a year – and my balance was all off because of that, really. We spent hours and hours working on different things, and trying different things and eventually it just clicked and before I knew it, by the end of the season I was back to normal, and I could go from there. It was difficult, but there were enough good people around me that helped me through. And I think that was very important to have.”
Blond-haired and smooth-skinned; the quieter, cool-headed older brother who plays with a straight bat and doesn’t answer back: you might be forgiven for suspecting Root of being – for all his merits – a touch on the dull side. As a youngster, his size did make him one of the shier lads. “I was pretty much a goody-two shoes at school – a bit boring, didn’t get in trouble with teachers – it was classical Yorkshire: a lot of respect to your elders. Once I started playing cricket that sort of slipped away.” There’s the cheeky grin. “I’ve sort of come out of my shell since school and started to actually enjoy myself.”
We’ve been told by a few people that you’re a bit of a practical joker. Is that right?
Sometimes… [Massive grin] Like I say, you’ve got to enjoy your cricket – on and off the field! I think I can be quite cheeky at times… I like to keep people on their toes… as I’ve been on the wrong end of a few things growing up, it’s nice to give a bit back to the rest of the lads!
What sort of stunts do you pull?
I don’t want to give any secrets away, I’ll just keep that in the dressing room. But I’m sure you’ve played cricket before so you can imagine some of the stuff that goes on.
Well, I hope it’s not as disgusting as some of the things AOC has seen…
Ha! No, it probably isn’t as disgusting as some of the stuff you do, I’m more cheeky than disgusting.
Let’s leave that one… What are your non-sporting interests?
Oh, non-sporting? I thought you were going to say non-cricketing! This is quite embarrassing but this winter I’ve started trying to learn the ukulele. And I’m still horrendous at it, but it’s a good one for taking away on tours and stuff , so this winter I locked myself away in my room for a couple of hours and tried to blast out a few songs – it went horrendously but I’m going to stick with it, and hopefully, in a few years’ time I might be able to play a few.
Great choice! How did that come about?
We were in a shopping mall in New Zealand and I was with Jonny [Bairstow] and one of the other lads, and I said – because I tried to learn to play guitar as a lad and never really stuck to it – ‘Oh, I reckon that’d be easier to learn’, because there’s only four strings. It’s small enough to put in my hand luggage on the plane so I thought, ‘Yeah, that’ll do’. It was about 30 quid or something, and yeah, I’m still plugging away, still trying. I just go onto YouTube and type in whatever song I want to learn and then try and crack on. It’s hard work!
So you’ll be at the heart of the team songs on the next tour, then?
Er, I’m not sure about that… there’s a lot of practice to be done first, but you never know, why not? I’ve just got to get in the nets and drill it…
Nice. What about books?
I’m not a massive reader, to be honest… I try and fill my time with other things. But I remember getting halfway through a book once. It was The Client by John Grisham, which was quite interesting.
Not interesting enough to finish it though! Are there many readers in the England squad?
Well, you’d be surprised at this because he’s quite thick, but Brezzy [Tim Bresnan] likes to read books now and again…
That is surprising… Swanny gives Bres quite a bit of stick about being thick…
Yeah, well Swanny’s not the only one to be fair – there are quite a few lads that give Brezzy a hard time! I’d like to say he plays up to it… I think he’d prefer it if I said it that way… But he definitely has his moments where he’s just genuinely, quite…
Firmly settled in with his teammates already, Root continued to catch the eye of the cricket world with his start in international cricket. After the Test series in India he slotted straight in to the ODI team, moving to bat in the pivotal No.4 position and making runs in every knock, while also chipping in with useful off breaks. His one-day form continued on the New Zealand tour, where he helped England to a series win including 79* from 56 balls in Napier. His runs weren’t “stodgy”, but brisk and good to watch: marked by ramp shots over fine leg, reverse sweeps for four and hits over the mid-wicket boundary. He’s adaptable.
Then of course, there was Headingley. Where else? In a golden run of form, the local lad made his maiden ton in front of his faithful in the second Test against New Zealand in Leeds. It almost seemed preordained. He’s been through every stage of the ECB’s development programme, played for the age-group teams, and at each juncture he’s done all that was asked of him, met every challenge, continued to get better. According to Root himself his winter with Graham Thorpe in 2011/12, when the Lions trained in India before Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, taught him “how to play spin” and prepared him for that debut knock in Nagpur.
The blindingly obvious comparison, then, is with Alastair Cook, who came into the side with “a good head on him” and never left: now England captain after years of grooming as the next-in-line. Root seems already to have assumed the same position: in the Lions’ warm-up match against New Zealand this summer, he was selected as skipper to give him, according to national selector Geoff Miller, “valuable experience of captaincy”. His previous includes captaining Yorkshire up to under 14s, and later skippering at Collegiate for a season in between Yorkshire 2nds games – where he’s also been captain on occasion.
Watching him lead the Lions at Leicester in May – seeing him standing at second slip, running up to the bowler between overs, handing the umpire the cap and sweater, a quick field adjustment – you could see it was just another challenge he was enjoying, and one that quietly, he fancied his chances of rising to. While it would be getting wildly ahead of himself to think about captaincy at this stage (“It’s one of those things that it’ll happen if it happens”) the idea doesn’t phase him.
One of many men convinced of the soundness of Root’s character, who’s watched his growing confi dence, is former Yorkshire skipper Anthony McGrath, who was captain that “petrified” day at Headingley when the boy made his debut. “He’s not only – obviously – very talented, but for a young guy he understands the game, understands his own game. He’s got a very good cricket brain and he’s just a good, solid man.
“Once Joe got in and put in a couple of good performances his character shone through. He’s a really likeable lad, he’s got a good sense of humour and as he’s become a little bit more confident on the pitch we’ve seen the repercussions of that off the pitch as well. He wants to learn, he’s a studier of the game – he’ll watch videos of himself or other players, he’ll be sat watching in training and pick up bits off other people; he’s very clever and intelligent in that way, he picks up things quickly – and I think that’s why he’s developed so quickly. Not so much talent – everyone’s got talent, it’s the understanding of his game and how quickly he’s processed it – that’s what’s really stood out for me.”
Photographs finished, we take the walk back round Headingley. How is he finding the new fame, doing interviews and stuff like this? “It’s all part of it, isn’t it? You’ve got to be able to do that. I’m still not very good at it but I’m getting better, I suppose. I’m sure by the end of my career I might be able to string a sentence together…”
We make our way from the museum – the shrine to Yorkshire greats past – round the back of the stands to the pavilion, moving amongst some of the county faithful on our way round. It’s the first game Root’s played at Headingley since his big winter away with England. As we walk and talk, he spots someone and smiles. “Oh, hang on, this could be a while!”
“Who’s this then?” comes a Yorkshireman’s voice. “How are yer, Jack?” Root calls out. “Jack” is Jack Bethel, a smiling grey-haired man in spectacles and a Yorkshire CCC tracksuit top. He’s a bit of a coaching legend at Sheffield Collegiate and across the south Yorkshire area, and a friend of Root’s family who “followed him all the way” through the system in Sheffield, coaching his under 13 district team. Spending the day up in Leeds, it’s by chance that he’s bumped into his former prodigy now. And according to him, the kid was a special one before he was even potty trained.
“When he’d got nappies on, and he got a cricket bat, I were thee-er. My wife looked at him in’t nappies – because he had a bit of an incontinence job, you know – and she says, ‘He can play, can’t he?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he can.’”
And how would Jack describe his boy now? “Well, it’s like all good things: quality, from Sheffield. It’s like steel! Quality.” After some catching up on the family and the club, Jack turns to Joe. “Anyway, I’m delighted to see you!” “I know,” says Joe, smiling back, “it’s been too long.” “Well done, I’m really proud of you. You’re a bloody brilliant advert for young people.” This flinty old Yorkshireman’s eyes are starting to water, now. “Cheers Jack.”
There then follows perhaps the most quintessentially Yorkshire cricket conversation I’ve [he’s from Hampshire – ED] ever witnessed. Noticing that the white rose have lost a few wickets (of which Joe is one) Jack makes a blunt enquiry. “So why are they getting out, Yorkshire then?”
Joe: It is April, Jack, it’s seaming everywhere. We’ve played quite a few shots, but…
Jack: That’s it, innit! You don’t play a lot of shots on seaming wickets, do you?
Joe: No, you try not to…
Jack: Your lot do, young’uns do now, don’t they…
Joe: The game’s evolving innit, Jack, you’ve got to try and stick with it…
Jack: [Laughing] Yeah, but you…
Joe: [Knowing what’s coming, pointing to the pavilion] Can’t score ‘em in there, can you?
Jack: You have got to stay in to get runs.
Joe: You’re dead right.
A lesson fastidiously taught in Yorkshire, and well learned by this one. Already, he seems destined to bestride the global stage for the majority of his cricketing life, an international superstar; very possibly, one day, his country’s captain. But he is undeniably rooted here: in his parochial heartland – he is a Yorkshire lad, even more: a son of Sheffield, and Sheffield Collegiate CC. Things are now moving very quickly in his young life, but, for the moment at least, Joe Root knows very well where he’s come from. And based on what he’s shown us so far, we can all be pretty confident about where he’s heading.