Joe Root was born into Aussie fire and Ashes woe.
It’s December 30 1990 and on the same day that Helen Root gives birth to a baby boy in Yorkshire, England’s cricket team is failing to deliver down under, slumping to defeat in an Ashes Test in Melbourne. A family photograph taken on December 31 shows Joe at just one day old, in his moses basket, a tiny cardboard cricket bat in his chubby hand.
Was the newborn Root preternaturally aware that Graham Gooch’s side needed his help (England would go on to lose the 1990/91 Ashes 3-0)? Probably not, as his early Ashes memories understandably come from a slightly later era.
“Staying up late in 2002 was something that I tried to do,” he recalls. “I probably always nodded off after half an hour. But I remember Nasser [Hussain] winning the toss in Brisbane and deciding to bowl first – that was my first memory of that series.”
Choosing to put Australia into bat first on what Hussain ruefully now calls “an absolute road” of a pitch is a decision Nasser isn’t likely to forget any time soon either. Not that all of Root’s memories from that Ashes are negative.
“Michael Vaughan smacked them everywhere in that series [scoring 633 runs], even though we didn’t quite manage to do it that year. Then 2005 really stands out. I was 14 at the time – and to grow up in that era, watching one of the greatest series in Test history, definitely made me want to pursue cricket and play Ashes cricket especially, because the atmosphere was incredible. The country really got behind England. That’s something we want to recreate over the coming summer.”
The next English Ashes summer, in 2009, also stands out: “It was a bit different because I’d just started out with Yorkshire in the second team, so I was away playing a lot. But I’d always keep tabs on it and watch the highlights – and I’m so lucky to be able to play with a lot of my heroes, really. Look at that 2009 side: Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Matt Prior – all guys who I managed to play with. As a kid, you spend your time sat in front of the telly, watching these guys – and a few years down the line, you’re in the dressing room having banter with them. It’s quite surreal.”
Assisting the Cook
See Joe Root up close and he appears far younger than his 24 years. His light stubble doesn’t mask his cherubic looks, but he speaks with calm maturity and took to Test cricket with remarkable composure. When Alastair Cook came to see Root in his hotel room in India in 2012, to tell him that he’d be playing in the final match of England’s Test series there, Root was just 21 years old. On debut, he made 73 runs in the first innings and then 20 not out in the second on a turgid pudding of a pitch in Nagpur. England drew the Test but earned a rare 2-1 series victory in India.
Just two and a half years later, and Root is vice-captain to Cook in the Test team. “More than anything, my role is to support Cooky,” he says of his new position. “Whether it be him coming to me at any point in a game and saying: ‘What do you reckon?’ Then giving him my view on field placings, bowling changes – or just me speaking up a bit more in team meetings, stuff like that. It’s making sure that I’m thinking about the game all the time and looking at how we can improve the position we’re in.” Thinking about the game all of the time comes naturally to Root. His hero Michael Vaughan describes Root as a “nufty” – someone who can’t get enough of cricket; who’s constantly badgering people with questions about the game. Has Vaughan ever passed on any advice himself? “We had a chat before I captained the England Lions a few years ago. All he really said was: go with your gut and make sure you look after your batting. Don’t let that suffer. So that’s one thing I really try to focus on: making sure that I keep developing that side of things. Because as vice-captain, scoring big runs and building big partnerships is, more than anything, going to help us win games of cricket.”
See Joe Root bat live and he appears far older than his 24 years. His array of shots – flicks, chips, scoops, helicopter pulls, plus more classic cricket strokes – is combined with a relaxed authority beyond his years. He runs hard between the wicket, scoring fast while at the same time rarely putting his wicket in jeopardy. At his best, he combines the audacious innovation of Jos Buttler (albeit without the raw power) with the temperament and staying power of Alastair Cook.
A formidable combination of talents, but his international career hasn’t been an unblemished success. In common with many of his England colleagues, Root struggled badly in the 2013/14 winter Ashes in Australia. After scoring just one half-century in eight innings, he was dropped for the final Test – which England still lost to rubber-stamp their 5-0 drubbing.
“I spent a lot of that time when I was out there trying to work on things that I wasn’t so good at,” says Root. “Maybe overly so. I ended up missing out on scoring opportunities, because I was so focused on working on the stuff I needed to improve that I held back. At the front of my mind now is making sure that my strengths are at their absolute best. I learned not to overthink things – just back yourself. What I’ve really tried to do since is to simplify everything in my practice, my preparation – just so it’s as easy as it can be when you’re out in the middle.”
He pauses, then adds: “It’s hard enough as it is when you’ve got someone bowling 95mph at you. You don’t need to be worrying about anything else.”
Australia’s pace attack is one of the few able to crank it up to the mid-90s. It’s spearheaded by Mitchells Johnson and Starc, ably supplemented either by relentless and reliable veteran Ryan Harris or young firebrand Josh Hazlewood.
“They’re a very good team,” says Root of the current Australia side. “Very aggressive. They like to take the game to you – and they all know their roles, which is very important.” He believes, however, that his own uncluttered mental approach can aid England: “We’ll obviously talk about them: what they bring and how we’re going to combat it. What’s more important is we have to concentrate on how we’re going about our business. That’s one thing we have to make sure is our main focus throughout – looking after our own games.”
Learning from mistakes is a classic sporting mantra, but Root is doing more than paying it lip service. He even sounds upbeat when bringing up England’s miserable 2015 World Cup campaign.
“I learnt a lot from that – things I’ve tried to take into the Test game,” he says. “To try and put the bowlers under as much pressure as possible, so they don’t think they can bowl maidens all the time – and making sure they know if they miss their length, I’m going to punish them. That’s one of my main focuses: to always look at the positive, look at scoring options and how we can move the scoreboard on freely.”
Stokes the fire
A scoreboard-bothering player Root clearly enjoys batting alongside is the all-rounder who came in one place below him at number six in the two summer Tests against New Zealand – Ben Stokes.
“We’ve known each other since we were about 13, so we go back quite a long way,” says Root. It’s really pleasing to seeing Ben play the way he did at Lord’s [in the summer’s first Test], because we all know how absolutely gifted he is. We all know what Ben can contribute to English cricket.
“The thing with Ben is, throughout his career, he’s not really had a settled position, whether it be inthe batting order or his role with the ball. But he showed us what he can do in Australia after he made his debut. For him now, it’s being more consistent, which he’s desperate to do. You can see how much it means to him to play for England – the way he never leaves anything on the field, he gives absolutely everything. That’s exciting. That attitude rubs off on others – you see someone wanting it that much and it’s infectious.”
Root talks of positivity, excitement and self-focus with genuine conviction, rather than if he’s singing from some hastily scribbled England hymn sheet. He is pleasingly unequivocal, too, when asked if – after the humiliation in Australia – revenge is a motivating factor going into next week’s Investec Ashes series.
“Of course,” he says. “We’re a proud nation, I’m a proud person – and there’s a lot of lads in that dressing room who have a point to prove. It was a bit of a disaster what happened down there, and we’re desperate to put it right. Our first opportunity to do that is here, now, and we’ve started this summer well.
“The key is to kick on and keep looking to get better. We have a young, exciting side with a lot of talent. Not just in the team, but in the squad. There’s guys waiting in the wings who have done special things in international cricket.
“Ashes cricket is the pinnacle. You want to be able to look back on your career and say: ‘I was a part of that.’ That’s something I will always remember from winning in [summer] 2013 – how special it felt. I want to recreate that feeling of being at The Oval and lifting the urn. Hopefully not just once, but a few more times.”
The Investec Ashes begin on July 8. For more on Investec private banking, visit investec.co.uk/pb or @InvestecCricket