Stranger to Failure

For a fully paid-up cricket tragic, the Long Room at Lord's is a dreamlike place. It is also multi-faceted: part art gallery, part social centre, part grandstand, part green room to one of the greatest sporting theatres on earth. The right to enter it during a Test match - conferred after many years waiting for people to die and the procurement of a substantial sum of money - gives you the opportunity to study players with a proximity granted to few. At Twickenham, at Wembley or at Wimbledon it isn't possible to hang around the dressing rooms or follow the players' progress to the arena without being arrested. At Lord's, it is.

I once saw Darren Gough leave the field at the end of the last spell he would ever bowl in Test cricket. England's opponents South Africa had scored 682 for 6 declared, and Gough had bowled 28 wicketless overs for 127. His face was scarlet and he walked with an uneasy gait that spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. He appeared disillusioned, on the verge of tears. He wouldn't be walking that way again.

I've also seen many batsmen walk from the dressing rooms to the pitch's edge. Convention and the demands of their profession dictate that they wear a serious expression. The message they are conditioned to give off is that this, what they are doing, what they have wanted to do since they began to play the game, is work. They are not there to enjoy themselves. They are there to make runs. After they have done so, from the safety of the middle, where people they don't know cannot see the whites of their eyes or guess at their deepest emotions, they will allow themselves to show that they are enjoying what they are doing.

Last Saturday, with Joe Root, things were different. With Root they usually are.

As Root, who is 63 not out, returns to the field after lunch, he strides ahead of his older partner and fellow Yorkshireman, Tim Bresnan, and his soft manchild's eyes betray a brief hint of levity and recognition. Then, before he puts his helmet on, he breaks into a smile. It seems to me, standing right in his eyeline, that he may have realised that he is going out to bat for England against Australia at Lord's and that he is in a position to fulfil the childhood ambition both of himself and of virtually everyone who is watching him. He can make a century for England at Lord's and he is not daunted by the possibility of failure. Instead he is relishing the prospect of success. There is also the feeling that he is a little flattered and amused by the fact that a roomful of people he does not know, and who are far removed from him in age, background and experience, are applauding him, a lad from Sheffield who simply knows how to bat very, very well.

From the time he came into the England side at Nagpur at the end of last year, Root's performances in all three formats of the game - with their combination of poise, judgement, technical acuity and nerveless flair - have been those of a phenomenon. But he is, in some ways, an unlikely phenomenon.

To watch Root at the wicket is not to be awed by genius. His stance is a little ungainly, perhaps as a result of his relatively recent transformation from a slight lad to a tall young man, although he retains a freshness of face which can make him appear 17 instead of his chronological age, which is 22. He has no signature shot, although he is perhaps happiest working (and sometimes stroking) the ball through the off side off the back foot. When anyone overpitches he is quick to recognize the length and drive the ball, with an exaggerated crouch through the off side, or with fine timing straight or through the leg side. When the ball is dropped short he will pull, when the nature and circumstances of the game demand it he will improvize. He is a workmanlike, predominantly orthodox batsman in the classical Yorkshire idiom, where runs, not empty style, are all.

His batting carries echoes of Atherton, although, where Atherton was hunched, Root is upright, and where Atherton was careworn by the demands of captaincy and the stresses of playing in a consistently overmatched side, Root is carefree. His Long Room smile is far from unique.

For now Root is a stranger to failure. Watching him bat, or bowl his sharply ripped off-breaks, or skip around in the field, or simply take his place with unforced self-assurance among his seniors on the dressing room balcony, it is possible to see the years sliding away into the future. Where now he is 22, one day he will be 34. He will have known failure, and the smiles will be less common, but the powerful sense is that he will still be there and he will still love what he is doing.

Joe Root will be walking through the Long Room for many years to come.


Wishing Well

I had ideas of writing something about Jimmy Anderson this afternoon. I've never really done that before.

But it can wait. It's hot and I've got a lot of other things to do as I'm heading for London and the Second Test very early tomorrow morning. Also, the way Anderson's bowling, there'll be a lot more to write about before the series is out.

Overnight I received a message from Sara Bradshaw, wife of Keith Bradshaw, former Chief Executive of MCC, who is once again fighting cancer. As an MCC member who remembers what Bradshaw did for the club very well, and how approachable he was, I'm only too happy to post this link. If you can, give.

We wish him well.


Do Believe the Hype

I recently looked at some TV listings from the summer of 1994. The BBC were still covering Test cricket then and it seemed impossible to imagine anyone else doing so. The day in the autumn of 1998 when it was announced that the broadcasting rights for home Test matches had been awarded to Channel Four was still years away and everything bumbled along as it had since Bob Willis was a boy. It was the natural state of affairs.

On the morning of a Test match day coverage began at 10.55, usually just in time to see the umpires walk out. Every hour they would cut away to a news bulletin which was nearly always exactly the same as it had been an hour earlier. On many an occasion coverage was interrupted to allow other sporting events to be shown, the most memorable (for all the wrong reasons) being the time a minor horse race (to me all horse races are minor, but we'll leave my prejudices to one side) was deemed more important than the fact that Graham Gooch was 299 not out and about to score the first triple century in English Test cricket since 1965.

Now we have Sky. Coverage begins an hour before play starts to allow enough time for the revolving cast of ex-Test players to cogitate, to speculate, to fulminate and occasionally (with tongue firmly in cheek, for the party line demands that the day's play which is about to commence is sure to be the greatest day in the history of cricket), to reminisce.

Nothing is ever underhyped. Over-analysis is all. Occasionally, shafts of reality intrude.

This time, though, the start of the series has lived up to the advance billing, with much of what has happened being beyond prediction or rational assessment.

The sun shone and temperatures rose in a way which anyone who has lived through the last few British summers could have been forgiven for wondering would ever happen again. The tempo of the match soared and dipped like a swallow riding the breeze.

While England, ultimately victorious, still look the more versatile and experienced of the two sides, the game had the feel of the type of tight, resonant Ashes contest which was familiar down the years and decades which preceded Australia's era of dominance and the crash which followed. The feeling is that there is more, much more, to come.

For all Ian Bell's timely judgement, the mature Anderson's now-routine brilliance and the arguments over Stuart Broad and DRS, the game's most significant story may just have been Agar. People - understandably getting carried away - mentioned Sobers and Lara, but for me the most apposite comparison was with the young Yuvraj Singh, batting in the Champions Trophy in Kenya in 2000. Youth, flamboyance, a backlift for the gods and, with his maturity and vivacity, a stunning future. His bowling, with its loose-limbed echoes of Daniel Vettori, carries plenty of promise, but his batting is of a different hue. When Sobers made his Test debut for the West Indies against England at Sabina Park in early 1954 he batted at nine and bowled slow left-arm. Expect to see Agar much higher in Australia's order in the future.

As ever, as one career begins to flourish, another one, somewhere, comes to a conclusion, and, as Agar was settling in at Trent Bridge, Ricky Ponting was bringing the curtain down on his time in the game with an innings of 169 not out at The Oval. If Agar, with his fresh-faced teenage insouciance, represents the future of the Australian side, Ponting signifies its hard-nosed but peerlessly successful past. Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman, a writer with many of the qualities of Ponting's greatest days, described it in a way few could match.

We knew Ponting. We now know Agar. We know Anderson, and Bell, and Cook. We are in this for the long haul.

My train for London leaves at 6.52 on Thursday morning.

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