Cap­tain Sen­si­ble

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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

In­vestec is the ti­tle spon­sor of Test match cricket in Eng­land. For more info, visit in­vestec.com/cricket

‘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

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