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Batting rootstar- The Uncut

The Uncut

In the formative days of Bazball, England was treated to a speech by skipper Ben Stokes. The still newly-appointed captain had watched Elvis before the rescheduled fifth Test of the India — England series. Stokes, a totemic figure himself, was so inspired by what he saw on screen. Basically, Stokes, in his speech on the first morning of the Test, challenged his team to be ‘rock stars’.

Easier said than done. Some have the persona ingrained in them. Others? Not so much. Joe Root, for instance, is more suited to being a class prefect than a rock star. More squeaky clean Yorkshire lad and less the Memphis’ King. But Bazball isn’t about trying and imitating something or someone. It was about creating an environment of fun, with entertainment being one of the primary currencies in town. The fine print — finding the best route to success — was the destination but there would be no arguments about the journey.

Root said as much after his match-winning 100 against India in the 5th Test in July 2022. “Ben wanted us to be entertainers. He mentioned trying to be rock stars on the field,” Root had said. “It’s about trying to have fun and relish every opportunity you get to showcase what you are about and put on a show for everyone. I do not think I will ever be able to feel or look like a rock star, but for 10 seconds I might have done today.”

Root may not admit it but he’s been a rockstar in England whites ever since Brendon McCullum and Stokes decided to reshape the England team in their image. If the one compelling story of Test cricket over the last year has been the side’s almost complete reversal of fortune, England’s No. 4 is the one penning some of the prose in the story. After the Ashes Down Under in the winter of 2021, Root looked broken, a leader of a ship with a broken steering and a lost compass. These days, he’s the leader of the band doing Elvis impersonations and reverse-ramping one of the best bowlers of the 21st century. 

To speak about Root’s last 12 months, the ideal starting point is the way he has exploited the space behind the slip cordon. According to data provided by CricViz to this daily, “Since McCullum took over, he’s played 15 scoop shots, scoring 40 runs’ in the process”. The year before that? “In 2021-22, Root played only one scoop shot off seamers, scoring one run,” CricViz added.  

Kevin Sharp, one of his first coaches at Yorkshire, alluded to this very shot when speaking about his former ward. “He has always been a consistent player for many years,” he told this daily. “They are playing with no fear, really. I think what has happened is that Joe too has certainly expanded his shot selection at Test level by playing some of the ramps, for example.”

If the ramp is a primer to understand Root under the McCullum-Stokes combination, a wider picture is necessary to know what the No. 4 has brought to the new regime. While the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Harry Brook and Ollie Pope (all to varying degrees) have provided the ballast, Root’s essentially the one with the oil, their bellwether batter, somebody who has made telling contributions across three continents. Out of the 14 Tests he has played under Stokes, he has made a 50 or above in nine. 

He’s been the world leader for centuries (five), most scores above 50 (10), most fours (132) and most runs (1279).  He may be considered a technically proficient batter, but he has also been able to live with the ultra-aggressive approach. His career strike rate till May 2022 was 54.65. Under the new regime, that’s jumped to 76.35 while averaging almost 18 runs more. 

Sharp isn’t surprised. “He has always been one of the leaders of the batting unit, he tries to put pressure on the opposition bowlers. He has been around long enough and experienced enough to be able to take on those responsibilities. 

“I am not surprised because he’s always thinking ahead of the game, what he needs to do to get better. When he practices, he always practices for the big occasion and the next big challenge. When he was 12, he was preparing like a county batter would do. When he was 16, he was preparing like a Test batter.” 
While the debate in India continues about the benefits of featuring in the IPL before a big-ticket red-ball series, Root opined that featuring in the IPL was better preparation for this year’s Ashes than turning out for Yorkshire. 

“Championship cricket is the bedrock of our domestic game and I am not trying to bag it with what I say here. I am not saying it’s not important or a good standard. (But) for where I am in my career, am I going to learn more about myself in that environment,” he had told UK media during the Test against Ireland in early June.

“Am I really going to be prepared better for an Ashes series facing lower-pace bowling on some nibbly wickets, when hopefully we will play on good pitches against high pace and a high-quality spinner? I don’t think so. By going to the IPL, learning and experiencing something new, and discussing the game with some of the greats, like Kumar Sangakkara and Brian Lara, I thought that not just for the Ashes, but the rest of the year, it would set me up best. I feel ready, I have another week’s prep and some time together as a squad.”

Sharp provides further insight. “He’s (Root) is very versatile,” he said. “There’s a difference between playing cricket and knowing how to play cricket… the very fact that the England management allowed these guys to play the IPL just before the Ashes is a vote of confidence. We know you can play Test cricket. Go out there and come back with those experiences and use them in the Test arena.” 

Speaking with former players, Sharp says, is also something Root likes to do. Especially to work on the mental side of his game. As an example, when he faced the problem of converting 50s into 100s. “He would talk to other players, past players, talk to psychologists, talk to anyone who would give him the necessary information to help him with the process. Now he’s so wise and smart… he’s probably had so many experiences, and he’s now revelling in the fact that he can try something in an environment that allows him to do so. If you make a mistake, ‘it’s okay’.” 

That, ultimately, is Root’s batting. Distilled to its very essence.

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