Joe Root: ‘This year whenever I’ve made a mistake I’ve paid the price’
I played a lot with Titch [Taylor] as a young lad – and Lions cricket too where we had winters in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
“Unfortunately I am a human being and not a robot,” Joe Root says with a dry little smile as he looks down at the beautifully sunlit expanse of Old Trafford while remembering the ugly shot that cost him his wicket in the first innings of England’s Test defeat against Pakistan at Lord’s. As Pakistan carry out fielding drills in preparation for the second Test, starting on Friday, Root shakes off his lingering disappointment from a dismissal that changed the course of last week’s fascinating match.
England’s best batsman came to the crease on the second morning at Lord’s. Pakistan had been bowled out for a decent if hardly imperious 339. Yet, after Alex Hales was caught in the second over, England were eight for one and Root was tested again. Batting in a new position, in the vital role of No3, he needed to build a foundation with Alastair Cook while shifting pressure back on to Pakistan.
Last year Root was voted England’s player of the season in all three formats and ranked the world’s best Test batsman. At Lord’s, batting with elegant authority and positive intent, he reached 48. England were 118 for one when Root played a slog sweep which was meant to clatter the leg-spinner Yasir Shar to the boundary. Until that moment Root had looked ready to hit his 10th hundred in his 43rd Test – only for his mistimed shot to loop up into a simple catch for Mohammad Hafeez.
Root’s disgust with himself as he marched off became a telling memory as the match unfolded – for England never regained their composure. He still sounds rueful – even when remembering the assurance he and Cook had shown. “We played really well and it was so disappointing to get out because we were in such control. Once they got me out they put us back under pressure. But for those 28 overs we played sensible cricket. We rotated the strike, we took the opportunity to score whenever it was there – and that shouldn’t change. You always want to cash in when you can but the execution of that shot wasn’t the best and I paid the price.
“We were trying to build that partnership. If you’re both there and it’s 200 for one, it’s a completely different game. It takes a lot of pressure off the guys below. So it was frustrating and, in hindsight, a big part of the game turning out how it did. If you get to 40 or 50 you shouldn’t gift your wicket to the opposition – which is exactly what I did.”
Root’s boyish face scrunches up into a grimace as the whoops of the Pakistan fielders echo around an otherwise deserted ground. “But it’s called Test cricket because it’s very hard. One small incident can turn a match on its head. It’s a big wake-up call coming into this Test. If I get into a similar position I have to make it count and not give anything to Pakistan.”
He is 25 but Root has faced exacting demands since he was a 12-year-old playing first-team club cricket for Sheffield Collegiate against men in the Yorkshire leagues. His mostly serene progress to the peak of international cricket stems from those boyhood opportunities to forge a steely character.
“Absolutely,” he says. “To watch my dad play with really strong players in that first team had a big impact. I used to see Michael Vaughan play at the club and then to watch him captain England was inspiring. Richard Kettleborough [the former county cricketer turned umpire] as well. It made it more believable that those things could potentially happen even to us. We would go to every match home and away and me and my brother would be on the sidelines hitting balls, and getting told off for hitting them on to the outfield. And we’d badger all the lads who weren’t batting to bowl at us in the nets.
“I got into the first team when I was about 12 and was given loads of opportunities, which was not usual. To be able to play high-level men’s cricket at that age was massive. You learn so much playing against men and once you start scoring runs, it gives you real confidence.”
He was a tiny 12-year-old but, in the tough Yorkshire leagues, the opposition went after him as if he was just another player. “They never took it easy on me. That was one of the best bits about it. I was always challenged. If you’re playing against someone, you always want them playing flat out and at their best – so when you are successful you know you’ve produced a really good performance. I remember a few years before that playing in the seconds and getting a couple of 50s. I had the pleasure of batting with Michael Vaughan’s brother, David, which was another good experience. Watching Michael growing up and seeing how he played helped my game.”
Root should be celebrated today as much as Vaughan was during the epic Ashes series of 2005 but cricket is no longer on terrestrial television and Root, while admired within the confines of the English game, does not receive plaudits from the general public. He is happy, though, to enjoy the nostalgic glow of 2005. “I watched it pretty much uninterrupted,” he remembers. “As soon as I got home from school I’d switch on the telly. I was 14 and it was brilliant. I remember being ill on the last day of The Oval Test. I watched the whole day – instead of being at school. Amazing.”
His family was agog with cricket but Root was always reminded it is just a game. His mother, Helen, worked as a nurse and her daily encounters with life and death offered a constant perspective. Root listens intently when I explain how a friend told me how much she owed to his mother. Her mum was dying of cancer and, in the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, she and her mother were shown incredible care and compassion by Helen Root.
“Absolutely. I’m extremely proud of what she does. I know she is as well. It’s really commendable how she much she cares about other people. She’s at the same hospital – still working hard and she cares as much as ever about her patients.”
Are his parents coming to the Old Trafford Test? “They’ve booked their tickets for Friday and Monday. They are pretty much at every game and it’s great, after they ferried me here, there and everywhere, to get them to occasions like this. My granddad Don will also be here. He’s 81 this year and still going strong. He’s already said he can’t wait because a few of his pals are coming up on one of the days. When I was 11 or 12 Don would video my games from the boundary and I’d watch them at night – and whenever I got out you could hear him chuntering away to himself in the background.”
Root grins when I suggest the great old Don might have cursed his sloppy dismissal at Lords. “I’m glad his comments after that shot aren’t on tape. I can imagine his reaction.”
His younger brother, meanwhile, strives to make a name for himself in comparative obscurity. “Billy’s playing for Nottinghamshire’s second team,” Root says. “He’s playing pretty well and he’s at that stage where a couple of big scores could lead somewhere. It’s been frustrating for him this summer with the weather – and if you think about club grounds, then you’ll know why it’s even wetter and harder to get out there for second-team cricket. But I’ve seen some of his scores the last few years and he’s been really impressive. It’s just about getting those opportunities to really open the door.”
The fleeting nature of cricket, and life, has been made excruciatingly plain to Root this season. He becomes a little pensive when reflecting on the enforced retirement of James Taylor, after a heart defect was diagnosed in April, as well as the recent news that Michael Carberry is fighting cancer.
“It’s horrible when it happens to two guys who I’ve played with. I played a lot with Titch [Taylor] as a young lad – and Lions cricket too where we had winters in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We spent lots of time together – as well as on recent England tours. It’s very hard to know what to say. You obviously just want him to know you’re there thinking about him and your support is there. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, do you? It’s a very hard conversation to have but the support shown to him inside and outside cricket gave him a lift. Titch also has great people around him.
“Michael and me were on that [2013-14] Ashes tour and we played Lions cricket the two previous years so I know him quite well. It’s also horrible to see that happen to him. He’s been very unlucky with other stuff but he’s been a fantastic ambassador to the game and a brilliant county pro. It must have been very hard for him but hopefully he gets good news soon.”
Root’s battles are in a simpler sporting arena. His desire to improve, however, is striking. “There are always different areas in the game you want to develop. For me it’s my all-round game in different conditions in different places in the world. If you’ve not played there for a while, you want to brush up on your technique in those conditions before you go there. This winter we’re in Bangladesh and India, so I need to make sure my game is in good order on those surfaces. In England you can use artificial wickets similar to those you get abroad.
“You mentioned the concentration side [for Root also gave away his wicket earlier this summer when set fair on 80 against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street] and that’s key. But also my bowling and fielding – you need to develop everything away from your main strength. And then give as much back to the team when you’ve got young lads coming in and they want your insight and advice. You help them as much as possible. So there are so many different ways to improve.
“But the starting point for me is cutting out those rash shots. Last year, on occasions, I was dropped early on and given extra opportunities and from that I was able to make big scores. This year it seems as if whenever I’ve made a mistake I’ve paid the price. The important thing is to stay very strong with my natural game.”
Granddad Don, and Root’s parents, will be watching closely at Old Trafford as he sets out to play his natural game at No3. “It doesn’t make much difference to how I approach an innings. I might just walk out a little sooner than before. But Cooky and Halesy might get off to a flyer and we’ve got 100 on the board before losing a wicket. I spent my whole junior career and the start of my first-class career opening or batting at three so I’ve got the experience. This Test is another good opportunity for me to get in earlier – and hopefully bat for longer this time.”
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