Big Interview: No ordinary year for Joe Root
Barely a fortnight has passed since the end of the biggest summer of his or any other cricketing life, yet already Joe Root is struggling to keep one eye off the next chapter.
England’s Test captain currently finds himself wrestling with a problem all too rare over recent years.
Namely, just what to do during an extended break from the sport? “I’ve got six weeks off, which is practically unheard of in international cricket these days,” explains Root.
“I’m already itching to get back into it a little bit now, if I am being honest.”
Just how much became apparent early into Root’s visit this week to the University of Wolverhampton.
A day which ended with the 28-year-old being awarded an honorary doctorate for services to sport, began with him facing deliveries from local youngsters during a coaching session in the university’s sports hall.
Treating the bowling in the respectful and reserved fashion you might expect, Root suddenly received a chest high full toss and instinct took over. In an instant the ball the ball was sent sailing high, back over the bowler’s head, over the spectators in the hall’s mezzanine floor and crashing off the far wall.
“I quite enjoyed that,” said a beaming Root when discussing the session afterwards. “I’d not picked up a bat since the Fifth Test. I was hitting the ball out there and thinking, this is alright! It is important to starve yourself a bit, get that hunger back, that desire to go and train hard, get back in the nets and do the difficult practices.”
Root is confident he will return to England duty refreshed and re-energised and no doubt many at the ECB will be hoping he makes the most of his time off. You cannot say he has not earned it. Few, if any, international cricketers play quite so often as Root. Certainly none with so much responsibility.
This summer he featured 25 games for England, including every match of their victorious World Cup campaign, before then skippering the Test side in the drawn Ashes series against Australia. Go back further and the numbers become even more extraordinary. Root has played more innings and faced more balls than any other batsman since making his Test debut in December, 2012.
An article in the Guardian last month revealed Root has played 103 days of cricket in the previous 365, significantly more than counterparts Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson.
Neither do those figures include the non-playing days of selection meetings, press conferences and all the other duties which come hand-in-hand with one of the most high-profile jobs in the game.
Little wonder many have voiced concern about the impact fatigue might be having on the England captain. “The danger is you can get weary,” he admits. “You see it with players who get in a rut sometimes.
“If I am being honest, you never really feel like you can properly switch off. There is always a selection meeting around the corner. The next week-and-a-half I will need to get back into some training, make sure my conditioning is good and hit some balls again.
“I think more than anything it is getting some time at home with the family, the comfort of your own home, go to the shop, get some food and cook a meal for my wife, have a bit of normality away from the hotel lifestyle. I think that is the most refreshing thing of all. I think that holds a lot of weight and does re-energise you.”
It needs pointing out much of Root’s hectic workload is at his own request, such is his work ethic and desire to play every format, to cram as much into his career as possible.
His infectious love for the sport has not wavered since childhood, when he and his brother Billy used to play in the garage of their family home, trying to score sixes by hitting the ball over the houses on the opposite side of the street.
Cricket has been part of his life for as long as he can remember. Only these days, the stages have become far grander.
It is in that context, then, that there is a hint of frustration in his Root’s voice when he acknowledges there are times when he must sit out for the good of the bigger picture. The upcoming T20 series in New Zealand, for which he and Ben Stokes will be rested, is an obvious case in point.
“There are times when you miss out and that is frustrating,” he said. “I know personally I am only going to get the opportunity to play cricket for a certain amount of years and I want to make the most of that.
“I see every game for England as a chance to do something special for the country.
“I am proud to get that chance and I want to take as many of them as I can. I don’t like the idea of being sat on the sofa at home being rested, when I feel like I could be playing.
“It is trying to balance that out and realise it is being done for the right reasons.”
Root’s primary focus is on the two-match Test series in New Zealand, which comes before a larger, four-match tour to South Africa over Christmas and New Year.
In many respects the summer represented the end of an era for England in red ball cricket. They are soon to have a new head coach, following the departure of Trevor Bayliss, while the inclusion of several new faces in the squad to face the Kiwis further reinforces the sense this winter represents a chance to shake things up. Root believes the new boys, Warwickshire’s Dom Sibley among them, will ask questions of more established names.
“It is a new era in many ways,” he said. “Ultimately our goal will be to make sure we are in the best possible place to win when we go to Australia for the next Ashes series in 2021.
“A lot of things we do in the next two years will be geared to winning out there.”
Understandably, Root looks back on the summer with mixed emotions. The World Cup win is something he and his team-mates will savour for a lifetime and he knows the importance for the sport of building on a success which captured the imagination of the nation.
At a packed Q&A session, held before his doctorate is conferred, he is told the most popular question sent in advance by the audience was: ‘What is is like to win the World Cup?’
By the same token, it is also true the second half of the summer did not pan out the way he had hoped. England’s aim was to regain the Ashes on home soil and to that end they failed.
Yet the skipper saw enough in the performances, most particularly a strong showing the fifth and final Test to salvage a draw and – of course – the miracle of Headingley, to believe the ingredients are there for future success.
“I think Headingley epitomised where our side is at currently,” he explained. “We have not been the most consistent team. There have not been enough perfect games that when we get on top we play consistently well for five days.
“But we always stand up in difficult circumstances. We show a huge amount of character in the way we go about things.
“Those are fantastic traits and if we can smarten up a bit, tidy a few areas up, become consistent alongside those traits we have got, I feel we can become a real force in Test cricket, just like we have been in one-day cricket.”