Living in the Age of Root

The Nevil Road ground, in the tired northern suburbs of Bristol, was never anyone's idea of one of the world's great cricket theatres. It's been smartened up a bit recently, but back in the late nineties when it began to host one-day internationals, it was a prisoner of its own featurelessness. Crammed between rows of terraced houses and a Victorian orphanage, when there wasn't much of a crowd in - which, frankly, was most of the time when Gloucestershire were playing - for all its antique associations with Grace and Hammond and Jessop it never made the pulse quicken.

There were other days, though. Between 1999 and 2003 I went to a series of ODIs there. I saw Shoaib Akhtar bowl one of the quickest spells I've ever seen, I had an early glimpse of Chris Gayle, and I saw Sachin Tendulkar make the only serious runs I ever saw him get (I usually watched him in Lord's Test matches). And I saw Ricky Ponting. Oh yes, I saw Ricky Ponting.

In the game between England and Australia at the ground on 10th June 2001, England won the toss and batted, making 268 in their 50 overs. Marcus Trescothick made runs, Nick Knight made runs, Ben Hollioake, in his final summer, made a few at the end in partnership with Owais Shah. By the standards of the day, it wasn't a bad score. Well, we'd all seen worse. This was England, this was one-day cricket, and it was a long time before 2015.

Australia lost an early wicket - Adam Gilchrist - which brought in Ponting. The memory is still there, vivid in its clarity: I've got no idea which of the bowlers it was, probably Gough or Mullally, but Ponting, from a guard on or over the crease line, took the biggest stride you could ever see and played a forward defensive stroke of such utter and complete impregnability that only one conclusion was possible. England weren't going to get him out that day.

They didn't, or at least they didn't while it really mattered. He made 102, setting up a last over victory that never seemed in much doubt. This was Steve Waugh's Australian side, after all.

That's something worth noting about great players. The attacking strokes are one thing, but often, aside from their frequency, they are little better than the shots which mere mortals play less often. But the reason lesser players play them less often is because they don't get the chance. They're out. Show me a great player without a solid defence and I'll show you someone who isn't a truly great player.

In those days England didn't have players like that. Within a short time we had hopes for Ian Bell, never ultimately fulfilled; then there was Kevin Pietersen. Great? Well, maybe. Near great, at least, but a genius who impressed in a different way. KP could defend, of course, but it was the strokes that had you, never the impression of invulnerability.

As an England fan in the nineties - even one who was easily old enough to recall the pomp of Botham and Gower - there was a tendency to see anyone who showed any promise at all through the prism of what they could be; even who they could be. I remember seeing Alex Tudor as a seventeen year-old, loping in and bowling with chilling speed and bounce from the Old Pavilion End at Taunton. I thought he was going to be our Curtly, our Courtney, our Ian Bishop. But, for many reasons, it never happened.

Even longer ago in place and time there was Mark Ramprakash, coolly steering the Middlesex chase in the NatWest Final as an eighteen year-old. I was up in the Tavern Stand that day, and yes, we all thought, this is a great player in the making. And in every way aside from the making of Test match runs and centuries, it was. But, when you're dealing with cricket at its most rarefied level, that is what matters. It is not the ice crystal purity of your technique, it is not your longevity against county bowling attacks - that means little to anyone brought up in another part of the world - or your hundred centuries; it is what you achieve in Test cricket, it is what you achieve in one-day international cricket, it is what you achieve in Twenty20 cricket.

Joe Root can do all those things. And how.

As with any outstanding player, watch him early in his innings. Quality, even against the very best bowling, shows through early. Indeed, against the very best bowling it needs to, or you will be gone. As anyone knows, Root has all the attacking strokes anyone could ever require, and the discretion to deploy them when they are most needed, but, when he first gets to the crease, especially if he is facing someone bowling well, his class is characterized by the way he keeps them out. The forward strides are there, but less impressively than with Ponting; with Root it is the backward defensive which defines him. A precise, easy movement of his right foot, back and across his stumps. Precise and easy, not clumsy and rushed, on account of his supreme reflexes. The head and eyes level, sniffing the bouncing ball. A straight, level blade, with the ball hitting the middle and dropping dead at his feet. It is a stroke which makes a statement. A statement of impregnability, of moral permanence, while also speaking of thousands of hours facing bowling machines and net bowlers, and seeing off real attacks in testing conditions. Firstly in his native south Yorkshire, then elsewhere in the north of England, then around his own country, then around the cricket world.

Of course, this is not all Root has. For all that his early stoicism impresses, it is only, as it must be for any batsman, a fall-back. If the ball is there to be hit, whether it is a half-volley or a half-tracker, it will be hit. Depending on circumstances, and the state of the game, and the quality of the pitch, and how Root is playing, it will be dispatched either over the ropes for four or into the crowd for six.

Occasionally Root gets these things wrong. Like anyone else alive, and anyone who has ever batted, he can fall prey to misjudgement born out of tiredness, or distraction, or over-confidence. At Lord's against Pakistan in the summer of 2016 he plays two really bad shots, leading to his dismissal in both innings, and contributing to an England defeat. As he walks off, he curses himself. This should not happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Six days later, at Old Trafford, he makes 254 against the same opposition. Unlike many another player, he learns from his mistakes. At that level of the game it is the only way to stay alive. Someone who batted with him during those matches, James Vince, knows that only too well. He will spend many quiet times reflecting on it for much of the rest of his life.

In batting, in cricket, in life, it is one thing to have the capability to do well. It is another to do so, and another still to do so again and again and again. It is wonderful to be living in the age of Root, but thoughts of Root's predecessors in the England team, and why they did not do what Root has done, continually intrude, even if their times have now been left behind. I tend to subscribe to the orthodox view that Ramprakash simply wanted it too much, while Ian Bell never fully realized how good he was capable of being. Root has these things down pat. He desperately desires success, but he doesn't let it consume him. He has tasted it and he knows he will taste it again over the many years that he will spend in the England team. Brooding, assuredly, is not his thing. The most repeated image in the mind's eye when one thinks of Root, apart from his strokes, is that of him smiling, joking and laughing, and it is these unselfconscious displays of enjoyment that have made him so popular. He is still little more than the young boy who loved batting and who subsequently found that he was very good at it and that people were prepared to pay him to do it and admire him for it. It is the type of good fortune that all of us would love to have, and we feel that if we did we would enjoy it for all it is worth. Joe Root does.

All of this is unforced. Technique can be inculcated through coaching; temperament cannot. I have a vivid memory of getting ready for work on a December morning in 2012, with the fourth Test from Nagpur on television in the background. As ever on these hurried, dark mornings, the game was incidental, but I had some time to watch which coincided with the early stages of Root's first innings in Test cricket. With spinners on at both ends, this was a test (and a Test) in the traditional Indian idiom, but there was an immediate feeling of assurance and calm about Root as he stroked his third ball from Piyush Chawla through the covers for three, and rapidly followed it with his first boundary, off Ojha. As with Alastair Cook, on the same ground some seven years before, there was a feeling of instant permanence.

Nearly four years later this has not been lost. And it will not fade for a very long time to come.

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