How Adelaide turned the England captain into a man
If you're going north out of central Adelaide, you'll want to take a left off the Princes Highway, away from the tyre shops and hardware stores; down a smart, wide residential avenue lined with sleepy bungalows and neat, matching gardens. You feel the soft crunch of purple jacaranda blossom underfoot. The heat is a still heat, stuffy and windless.
Ahead, the beige brick edifice of Prospect District Cricket Club gives way to a lush green oval with a modest sightscreen at either end. They play Aussie Rules football here during the winter, but it's summer now, cricket season. Nothing about this is familiar. Your name is Joe Root. You are 19 years old, 10,000 miles away from home, and on your own.
You know nobody in the city, and nobody in the city knows you. They rate you pretty highly back at Yorkshire, and at Loughborough too, which is why the ECB have sent you to Australia to train at Darren Lehmann's academy for the winter. But here, in the scorching suburbs of South Australia, nobody really knows how things will work out. Nobody knows that this quiet, round-faced blonde kid without a single Championship game to his name will be playing Test cricket within two years.
r maybe you do? The man who met Root at Adelaide airport in late 2010 was Shaun Seigert, a coach at the academy. “I've done that journey so many times,” he remembers. “I still remember him standing there, just this young kid. And you don't know whether they're going to make it. But you get an idea very quickly. It was just that look. I asked him where he wanted to go in the game. He said: ‘I'm going to play for England.'
“Now, all these ECB guys say that. But you know, deep in their heart, that they're just happy to play first-class cricket and survive in the system. That was never going to be enough for Joe. I never imagined that he would captain England, but that's always stuck in my mind.”
As Root returns to Adelaide this week to lead his country in an Ashes Test, he has never forgotten the debt he owes to a city where, as he put it on Friday, he “made some really good friends and shared some good memories”. Root arrived at Prospect as an unknown, and left five months later as an unknown. But in between, something small and vital changed.
Seigert saw that process from up close. During those five months, Root toiled and sweated, grafting at the academy during the week under a hot sun, and then playing grade cricket for Prospect at the weekend. The work was unstinting, souldestroying at times. “We've got three core philosophies,” Seigert explains. “Being uncomfortable, because top-level sport is uncomfortable. Finding a way. And the other thing is to be on the edge. We want to see you fail sometimes.”
Root failed often. He scored just 262 runs at an average of 29 that season, mostly playing two-day, 90-over men's cricket. Nathan Lyon, now Australia's leading spinner, was an occasional team-mate. “He struggled,” Seigert remembers. “He got 70 in the first game, and made one or two fifties, and that was it. I remember saying to him that he was trying too hard. Performance has to flow.”
They come from every corner of the world to train at the Lehmann academy - England, Bangladesh, the West Indies, Canada. These days, the young cricketers are housed together in apartment blocks. But in Root's day, they stayed with local families, often associated with the club. “Sometimes the arrangements have turned out to be shit,” Seigert says. “But he was lucky. He went into a good family.”
Barely a minute's walk from the Prospect Oval, in one of those large handsome bungalows, live the Fishers: Craig, son Jason, two nieces Chloe and Emily, and the woman who ran the house. “I was his mum for six months,” laughs Tiffany Fisher. “I'm what I call a supermum. I keep a clean, structured house. And I'm very fussy. I always say: if you live in my house, you're one of my children.”
Tiffany was on the Prospect committee, in charge of catering, kit and a lot of the “girls' jobs”, as she puts it. “So they asked me: ‘Tiff, we've got this player coming, he's only 19, we really want to look after him, will you take him?' So I did. I had the room.”
With his real family on the other side of the world, Root settled into life with the Fishers. And by all accounts, he was a perfect house guest. “He's just the most beautiful person,” Tiffany says. “A well-grounded kid. He hasn't been pampered. He's very grateful and very humble. It would be nothing for him to put the kettle on and make cups of tea after dinner, or help dry dishes. Anything we asked of him, he would help out.”
Prospect cricket club, where Root cut his teeth (Independent) Conversely, Root had a favour of his own to ask. “He came with a diet sheet,” Tiffany remembers. “And he was so coy about it. Because back at 19, he was a little bit… heavier, chubbier than they wanted him to be. THE INDEPENDENT