Stranger to Failure

At the time I wrote this, just after he’d made 180 when opening the batting for England against Australia in the Lord’s Test in July 2013, it truly seemed as though Joe Root was a ‘stranger to failure’.  At the time he had only been in the England side for a matter of months, but had established himself as a member of the team in all three formats of the game with his impassive temperament, obvious maturity and refreshing joy in simply playing the game.

Of course, the honeymoon didn’t last, but, now that his best position in the Test batting order has been established as number five (at least for the time being), there seems little doubt that he’s going to be around for a long time.

Much like the Long Room at Lord’s, in fact.

For a fully paid-up cricket tragic, the Long Room at Lord’s is a dreamlike place. It is also multi-faceted: part art gallery, part social centre, part grandstand, part green room to one of the greatest sporting theatres on earth.  The right to enter it during a Test match – conferred after many years waiting for people to die and the procurement of a substantial sum of money – gives you the opportunity to study players with a proximity granted to few.  At Twickenham, at Wembley or at Wimbledon it isn’t possible to hang around the dressing rooms or follow the players’ progress to the arena without being arrested.  At Lord’s, it is.

I once saw Darren Gough leave the field at the end of the last spell he would ever bowl in Test cricket.  England’s opponents South Africa had scored 682 for 6 declared, and Gough had bowled 28 wicketless overs for 127.  His face was scarlet and he walked with an uneasy gait that spoke of mental and physical exhaustion.  He appeared disillusioned, on the verge of tears.  He wouldn’t be walking that way again.

I’ve also seen many batsmen walk from the dressing rooms to the pitch’s edge.  Convention and the demands of their profession dictate that they wear a serious expression.  The message they are conditioned to give off is that this, what they are doing, what they have wanted to do since they began to play the game, is work.  They are not there to enjoy themselves.  They are there to make runs.  After they have done so, from the safety of the middle, where people they don’t know cannot see the whites of their eyes or guess at their deepest emotions, they will allow themselves to show that they are enjoying what they are doing.

Last Saturday, with Joe Root, things were different.  With Root they usually are.

As Root, who is 63 not out, returns to the field after lunch, he strides ahead of his older partner and fellow Yorkshireman, Tim Bresnan, and his soft manchild’s eyes betray a brief hint of levity and recognition. Then, before he puts his helmet on, he breaks into a smile.  It seems to me, standing right in his eyeline, that he may have realised that he is going out to bat for England against Australia at Lord’s and that he is in a position to fulfil the childhood ambition both of himself and of virtually everyone who is watching him.  He can make a century for England at Lord’s and he is not daunted by the possibility of failure.  Instead he is relishing the prospect of success.  There is also the feeling that he is a little flattered and amused by the fact that a roomful of people he does not know, and who are far removed from him in age, background and experience, are applauding him, a lad from Sheffield who simply knows how to bat very, very well.

From the time he came into the England side at Nagpur at the end of last year, Root’s performances in all three formats of the game – with their combination of poise, judgement, technical acuity and nerveless flair – have been those of a phenomenon. But he is, in some ways, an unlikely phenomenon.

To watch Root at the wicket is not to be awed by genius.  His stance is a little ungainly, perhaps as a result of his relatively recent transformation from a slight lad to a tall young man, although he retains a freshness of face which can make him appear 17 instead of his chronological age, which is 22.  He has no signature shot, although he is perhaps happiest working (and sometimes stroking) the ball through the off side off the back foot.  When anyone overpitches he is quick to recognize the length and drive the ball, with an exaggerated crouch through the off side, or with fine timing straight or through the leg side.  When the ball is dropped short he will pull, when the nature and circumstances of the game demand it he will improvize.  He is a workmanlike, predominantly orthodox batsman in the classical Yorkshire idiom, where runs, not empty style, are all.

His batting carries echoes of Atherton, although, where Atherton was hunched, Root is upright, and where Atherton was careworn by the demands of captaincy and the stresses of playing in a consistently overmatched side, Root is carefree. His Long Room smile is far from unique.

For now Root is a stranger to failure. Watching him bat, or bowl his sharply ripped off-breaks, or skip around in the field, or simply take his place with unforced self-assurance among his seniors on the dressing room balcony, it is possible to see the years sliding away into the future.  Where now he is 22, one day he will be 34.  He will have known failure, and the smiles will be less common, but the powerful sense is that he will still be there and he will still love what he is doing.

Joe Root will be walking through the Long Room for many years to come.

Different Shades of Green, 24th July 2013

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