This week, Joe Root goes to Australia ahead of his first Ashes series as Test skipper. But with the Ben Stokes controversy swirling, threats of ‘war’ from the opposition and the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders, can the 26-year-old Yorkshireman
With 26-year-old Joe Root at the helm, can England avoid an Ashes disaster? Joe Shute meets him
Joe Root prepares for the Ashes by contemplating what missiles will be lobbed his way. Before the 2015 series he would practise in the nets with batting coach Mark Ramprakash, who’d hurl ball after ball at his head and chest with a plastic slingshot like the ones used by dog walkers to replicate the 90mph deliveries of the Australian bowlers.
They were yellow training cricket balls, lighter than the real thing, but still hard enough to leave a nasty welt. Helmet on, bat in hand, Root would endure the barrage for hours at a time.
Then there are the verbal volleys: the rancorous home-crowd chants and rival players sledging with all manner of taunts to put him off his stride. When I ask what is the most unpleasant comment he can recall hearing, Root eventually settles on a memory from the last Ashes series on Australian soil in 2013-14, when Michael Clarke warned Root’s then batting partner James Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken f—g arm’.
‘There are occasions when players try to get under your skin and it can sometimes work,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you get the whole intimidation side of it. Other times you can just see straight through what they are trying to do.’
The Ashes is all about needle, finding chinks in an opponent ’s armour and exploiting them to ruthless effect. Australia’s current agitator-inchief David Warner (who once punched Root in a Birmingham nightclub – more on that later) best summarised the art of sledging in a recent interview when he announced the Australians will channel the ‘hatred’ and enmity our shared sporting history offers when the five-match series starts in Brisbane on 23 November. ‘As soon as you step on that line it’s war,’ Warner told an Australian reporter. ‘ You try and get into a battle as quick as you can. I try and look in the opposition’s eye and work out: “How can I dislike this player? How can I get on top of him?”’
Such has been the build-up to the Ashes, Warner and his team-mates will find themselves spoilt for choice when it comes to material. After all, Root’s England side has endured what the captain diplomatically refers to when we meet as a ‘difficult few weeks’. Not least the very public implosion of his close friend and vicecaptain, Ben Stokes.
As we go to press, the 26-year-old all-rounder is awaiting the outcome of a police investigation into an early-hours brawl outside the Mbargo nightclub in Bristol on 25 September where members of the England team had been celebrating a one-day victory over West Indies. Stokes was arrested on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm and left nursing a broken hand. England and Nottinghamshire batsman Alex Hales, 28, was also there and has given a statement to police. Both players remain ‘ineligible’ for England selection while police continue their investigations.
The fallout from that night has shone an unwelcome spotlight on the culture of English cricket. As well as a gruesome video of the alleged street fight in which Stokes appears to throw a volley of punches at two men, he has also been forced to apologise for a separate video showing him mocking Katie Price’s disabled teenage son Harvey. Following the discovery of the latter, sports equipment manufacturer New Balance
announced it was ending its £200,000 sponsorship deal with the cricket star.
Meanwhile a nake d s elfie of Alex Hale s appeared online, and in the midst of the media glare, much of the squad decamped on a stag do to Amsterdam (Root opted not to attend). Cue photographs of a bowler waving a sex toy in the redlight district and accusations of England players forgetting their responsibilities.
All this is before you get on to the actual cricket. Stokes won’t travel to Australia with the rest of the Ashes squad, which critics argued was already looking short on quality. ‘It’s horrendous,’ tweeted former player Kevin Pietersen when the 16-man squad was announced. ‘They may as well not go!’
The England camp have been noticeably quiet following the Stokes incident and Root winces when I ask if he has watched the video. ‘It’s not nice to see, is it?’ he says, the faint smile that had played across his lips for the duration of our interview hardening. ‘It’s not been easy for me. We’re part of a team. It’s obviously been a tough time for Ben and his family. You want to make sure you are there for your friends.’
Born just five months apart, Root and Stokes have known each other half their lives. They first met as 13-year- olds playing county cricke t (Root with Yorkshire, Stokes for Cumbria) and joined the England set-up for the Under-19 World Cup in 2010. As batting partners and team-mates, they ’re yin and yang, the mercurial Stokes complementing Root’s calm authority and tactical nous. They share an agent and are seen as key to the success of England’s current Test side.
Stokes has long been notorious for a fiery temper and love of a night out. In 2014 he missed the World T20 when he fractured his hand punching a locker after getting out on a tour of the Caribbean. Root later wrapped his locker in padding as a dressing-room prank. Still, he insists the current controversies portray Stokes in an unfair light.
‘He is a brilliant dad and loves spending time with his kids. A lot of the time he is quite quiet. It has been a disappointing and horrible situation, but I wouldn’t say that is a fair representation of Ben as a person.’
There is a maturity about Root that has long seen him earmarked as a future England captain. He has not been entirely without controversies, though. Before the 2013 Ashes he was punched in the face by Warner. The Australian, who has since gone teetotal, claimed he hit Root because he thought he was mocking the Muslim cricketer Hashim Amla by wearing a fake wig as a beard. It’s an explanation Root has angrily dismissed.
‘There is a slight fabrication of that story,’ he says. ‘But you learn your lessons, and ultimately do it the hard way in front of the whole world. That was obviously not on the scale of more recent stuff, but when you go through something like that, you understand there are certain ways of going about things and ensuring you don’t put yourself in those positions again.’
What was instructive about Root’s reaction at the time was the way he instantly walked away from the confrontation. ‘I knew I wanted to get out there and just tried to remove myself from the situation,’ he says.
To understand what Root brings to this cricket team – aside from a cool head – watch the highlights from his first innings after being appointed Test captain, against South Africa in July. In the Lord’s sunshine, he scored 190 runs as teammates came and went around him. It was a masterclass in controlled aggression and precision. While the likes of Stokes relish attempting to hit the ball out of the ground altogether, Root prefers a more methodical approach: patiently picking out his shots and knowing instinctively when to run. At 4.28pm, as the new captain completed his century, he punched the air in celebration, while the 28,000-strong crowd rose with the now-traditional roar of ‘Roooot…’
Root winces when I ask if he has watched the video. ’It’s not nice to see, is it?’ he says
We meet in the dressing room of Sheffield’s Abbeydale Sports Ground, home to the Collegiate Cricket Club, where he started out. Outside, a fine Yorkshire drizzle patters down. Root was raised near to the cricket ground in Sheffield’s leafy southern outskirts and today lives in the neighbouring village of Dore with his fiancée Carrie Cotterell and son Alfred, who was born in January. ‘Being a dad is awesome,’ he grins.
Root is slightly built and dressed in a simple grey jumper, jeans and box-fresh trainers. Even with a hint of stubble, he still closely resembles the young boy who used to sit silently in the corner of this dressing room trying to soak it all in.
In adulthood he remains a quiet, studied presence. He met Carrie three years ago while she was working at a Leeds pub. She was a pharmacology student and had little idea who the awkward man with a blond quiff trying to chat her up was.
‘I don’t even want to think about what I said,’ he says. ‘Not because it would have been crude or anything, but just for the embarrassment and the way I stumbled through my words.’
Away from cricket he is happiest learning Ed Sheeran songs on the guitar and playing golf. When I ask what luxuries he has treated himself to, Root struggles to answer although he eventually admits he drives a Range Rover.
‘ To be honest I can be quite shy,’ he says. ‘Cricket is my comfort zone. Away from that I can sometimes be more introverted. I wouldn’t say I’m antisocial, but I do enjoy a bit of me time.’
Root grew up in a cricket-mad family. His grandfather Don was named after the great Australian batsman Donald Bradman and his father, Matt, played in the Collegiate 1st XI. Matt was a PE teacher who moved into medical equipment sales, while Root’s mother, Helen, continues to work as a practice nurse specialising in eating disorders. ‘Mum would work night shifts and try to look after us as much as possible,’ he says. ‘Seeing how they have got to where they are today, I learned the value of working hard.’
On Saturdays, Root’s mother would spread out a picnic blanket at the Abbeydale ground while he and his younger brother Billy charged about the side of the pitch. ‘ Watching Dad play cricket, it was an easy thing to fall in love with,’ says Root.
He began playing for the Collegiate under-13 side aged about seven or eight and recalls his first game here wearing a helmet and pads. ‘I’ve got a small head now, but back then it was tiny. The helmet was rattling around. I think I might even have got zero. It was frustrating not being able to score a run, but the next time you get an opportunity you want to put it right.’
The Root brothers were precociously talented (Billy, 25, plays for Nottinghamshire) and fiercely competitive. Typically, Joe recalls his brother ’s first six at Abbeydale, but not his own. ‘That was all he spoke about for about six months,’ he says. ‘He was definitely better than I was.’
Still, it was the older brother who caught the eye of his coaches and at the age of 13 won a s cholarship by Yorkshire Cricket Club (the youngest player to do so). Kevin Sharp, then head batting coach at Yorkshire, was impressed with his maturity and technique, and agreed to help hone his skills with one-on-one sessions. As Root sailed up through the youth teams, he took a gamble and left fee-paying Worksop College (where he had been sent on a cricket scholarship) after finishing his GCSES to focus fully on playing.
At the age of 18, however, came an obstacle. Root had just signed his first professional contract with Yorkshire and that winter had a growth spurt of five inches. When he reported for pre -season he found his technique had
‘Watching Dad play cricket, it was an easy thing to fall in love with’
‘fallen apart’. ‘I felt like I was in somebody else’s body,’ he says.
Root spent months building a new technique with Sharp and remembers it as a deeply frustrating and emotional time, where he seriously doubted his future in the game. The lowest ebb was a match where he walked out to the crease knowing he would be dismissed LBW (he has blocked out which team he was playing), and that was exactly what happened.
‘That was a horrible feeling, to know you had this really big flaw… Something I pride myself on is making sure there are no obvious weaknesses in the way I play,’ he explains. ‘I was working terribly hard, but nothing seemed to work. The more frustrated and agitated I was, the worse it got.’
Eventually, in a game against Warwickshire, he got a lucky bounce early on and went on to hit 150. ‘From that point I didn’t look back,’ he says.
Root says this experience shaped the way he approaches the captaincy, making him a leader who prefers forensic analysis to gutsy rallying cries. ‘I’ve got more of an ability to step back and find a logical way to deal with problems,’ he says.
He seeks advice from former captains, not least Michael Vaughan, who also played for Sheffield Collegiate and was a boyhood hero of Root’s. It was Vaughan who claimed in the wake of the Stokes arrest that the England cricket team required a change of culture. Does Root agree?
‘As a side we need to sit down, discuss it, and make sure everybody is on the same page and knows their responsibilities as an England player and an international sportsman, then make sure we avoid situations happening like this again,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t say there is a huge drinking culture. There have been occasions when guys have got it wrong, but it is something that over the years has improved dramatically.’
More personal glory awaits. Root already has an Ashes victory to his name thanks to the 2015 series and is steadily gaining on Australian Steve Smith, the current number one Test batsman.
But when he says the greatest achievement will be leading his team to success in Australia this winter, you believe him. Beyond the brickbats and bone-crunching balls lies the chance to go down in history.
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‘I wouldn’t say there is a huge drinking culture. There have been occasions when guys have got it wrong’
Below Root (left) with long-time friend and team-mate Ben Stokes, who was arrested following a brawl after England’s one-day win in September
Below David Warner (left), who punched Root in 2013 during a night out in Birmingham