“I can’t remember exactly what I said when he called. I just remember having a massive grin on my face for the next couple of days.”
And on cue, that massive grin is back. There is a tendency in professional sport to overdo the elite mate-ship stuff, that band-of-buddies dynamic all teams like to erect around themselves. In this respect, at least, the current England Test team stands out. Joe Root and Ben Stokes, the captain and his deputy, are not just actual friends but one of the great modern-day English sporting friendships.
The first time Root and Stokes met was in the under-12s, Yorkshire versus Cumbria (“He got me out, caught at midwicket”). It is a bond that has run through county age groups to a decade in the shared public glare of glory, dark times, World Cup finals and now the basic weirdness of simply surviving the pressures of bubble life.
At the end of which it is no surprise to learn Root heard the news Stokes was ready to return to cricket for the imminent Ashes tour in the best possible way, a phone call from Stokes himself.
“I’d got an inkling,” Root says. “I’d had some good conversations with Ben over the period while he’s not been playing. It was just such a joy to hear him speak, you could almost hear his smile, if that makes sense, down the phone. You could tell he was so much happier within himself. Just the fact he feels he’s in a place where he’s ready to play cricket again is the most exciting thing.”
It is a very genuine sense of pleasure. As the days tick down the captain might have been forgiven applying a little friendly pressure. This winter already looks like a defining point in Root’s own successful career, a measure of where he might hope to get to on that all-time register. He turns 31 just after the third Test, with a personal record of played 10, lost nine in Australia and (jarringly) no hundred in 17 innings. Stokes has so often been the spine, spleen, heart, guts and other associated bodily parts of England’s best Test moments in the last five years. Root needs his keynote player.
And yet, sitting in the basement bar of a cricket-themed pub, six days before England’s players are due to get on that plane, he really does just want to talk about his mate feeling happier.
“We made it very clear to Ben, it’s got to be right for you. You have to be in the right space to go and play, physically and mentally. One thing about Ben, he’s very honest, he won’t shirk any difficult conversations and he’s been true to that through the whole thing. We have been through a lot on and off the field. To see him now back in a place where he is able to enjoy his cricket again and feel more himself, that’s the best part of the whole thing. It’s just really exciting.”
Root is in Manchester doing a photo shoot for New Balance, his kit suppliers. Close up he has that slightly dainty quality of elite sports people, softly spoken but precise with his words in the way one might expect of someone whose life since childhood has been the fine-point obsession, the peeled-eyeball detail of top-order batting.
The very helpful PR person had suggested this might be a good time to talk about the wider Joe, the man outside the cricket man. Well, we can try. But it might be quite a short interview. This is a period of total immersion for Root, of fever pitch in his own cricketing life. The current calendar year has brought one of those golden gleaming blade spells of form, with six hundreds in 12 Tests, 10 of those against the No1 and No2 ranked teams in the world. Right now Root has a fair numerical claim on being England’s greatest ever batsman.
Nobody else has scored more hundreds for England (39) across all formats, never mind the combined average of just under 50, the ODI World Cup medal, or the team of the tournament gig at the last T20 World Cup. Nobody else has averaged over 50 in Tests for England since the Beatles split up. Root is out there on his own right now, laying down those all-time numbers in a generationally poor England batting lineup. What does it feel like to be operating in that kind of clear blue space where everything suddenly clicks, where you become, in patches, untouchable? Does he walk around thinking, ‘Ah yes, I’m world No1’?
“Certainly not,” he says, looking mildly horrified, and talking instead about how many other good players there are in the world, and how much he has to learn from them. “There are very rare occasions where everything clicks and you don’t have to think at all, you don’t feel any pressure, you’ve not got technical thoughts floating around your mind that you’re trying to keep away. There are a handful of days where everything synchs in beautifully and you can completely focus on enjoying that day, that fluency of movement, scoring those runs. But a lot of the time it’s hard work. More often it’s passages of play you’ve just got to find a way to get through.”
Headingley this year against India, where he reeled off a frictionless 121 on day two, is the only time he just knew he was going to score runs, when he has felt as close as possible to being “in control”. Otherwise, and for all the personal milestones, it has been a fairly miserable year of Test cricket, a period when suddenly being England captain has involved managing not just who bowls from which end but the well-being, the mental reserves, the bubble-life pressures of players in his care.
England’s cricketers have been required to career around the world balancing the ledger for the ECB. The players have taken pay cuts in that time, while their bosses have accepted a shared £2.1m bonus. And Root’s own profile has shifted. There has been some frustration in the past with his tactical captaincy, a desire for him to give a little more of himself. But Root has shown other qualities during the pandemic: emotional honesty, selflessness, an obvious care for his teammates.
Players have been rotated, rested, given time to gather themselves. Performance and results have suffered (Root speaks of some frustration, as a captain, at not being able to pick the best team every time). But England have needed a good man as much as a great captain in these horribly draining months. The team has been quietly heroic in its willingness simply to play on. And there is a well of affection for Root out there, a sense that, whatever the ultimate numbers, the series won and lost, he has shown himself to be a person of substance.
Might there be a note of grace at the end of this, a sense of impetus, of gathering authority as England head to Australia? Heaven knows, they need all the help they can get. This is not a great, or even a very good England team. And Australia has not, so far, been a great place for their one great batsman. For Root, success in Australia represents not just a final frontier but a kind of craving.
“It’s the one series every player is desperate to perform in, to have a series like Cooky for example, or Chris Broad all those years ago. That volume of runs is what you dream of. The two previous tours I think if anything I probably got a bit too desperate. I think that extra bit of experience off the back of a fruitful year for me personally puts me in a better place.”
Root has already been visualising that battle, working on angles, the strengths of Australia’s bowlers, the carry in the pitches. “It’s a very good attack. They have a fantastic record at home. They’ve been together a long time. But with that, it also gives you a lot of data to work with, a lot of examples of what works for them and what doesn’t.”
In the past his own favourite scoring area behind square on the off side has become a weakness in Australia. “It’s something I have been thinking about for a good while now, I look at where I’ve been undone in that part of the world. It’s about managing certain lengths and finding a way to get on top of the ball. Some of the areas I score very freely in England, through the offside with a straight bat, I’m not sure that’s the best way to play those conditions. I think it’s just managing your game, managing risk well for long periods of time, being clear where you’re going to score and put pressure back on to them.”
Pressure is, of course, the great draw, the basic addiction of these Ashes contests. The last trip to Australia has something of a lost tour feeling: Root’s first as captain but deprived of Stokes due to his ban and with a makeshift cast. It was a damp, grey affair compared with the visceral thrills of Root’s debut tour in 2013-14, a bonfire of the vanities at the hands of an inspired Mitchell Johnson.
He still talks about that series, and some of the great fast bowling of the age, with a sense of awe. Root’s good friend Nathan Lyon said recently that was the only time in cricket he has seen an entire batting lineup walk out looking scared. What was it like facing prime Mitch?
“Some of the balls Johnson bowled, what separates it from other difficult passages of play was within that you found yourself playing shots you didn’t expect. Your body would do things you’ve spent your whole career training not to. In my first innings at Brisbane, first ball, I had a massive drive, thick edge for three. Second ball another massive drive. And I’m thinking, ‘what am I doing?’ This is not how I want to play. I looked behind and there are five slips, I know exactly what he’s trying to do, how he’s going to get me out. Next ball bouncer. Next ball massive drive caught at third slip.
“And I’m walking off thinking everything I’ve done within that innings is exactly how I don’t want to play my cricket. I just found myself throwing my hands at the ball when I didn’t intend to. That series for him was the moment in his career when everything was clicking. He rode that wave extremely well. But for a 22-year-old as I was, it was a great learning experience.
Root is quick to point out the current batting group will not be carrying those scars of defeat, or indeed any great experience at all in Australia. England may be obvious underdogs but they will take heart from India winning in Australia at the turn of the year.
“Look at that India team that won at the Gabba. They were a long way from their first-choice XI but they had no fear, they stood up to Australia and won crucial parts of that Test. It will give every player in our squad a huge amount of confidence and just plant a little bit of doubt in Australia’s mind having to go back there and play again for the first time against us, what with it being such a stronghold for them for such a long period of time. We now know that it’s not.”
It is the closest Root gets to a little pre-series jab. But you can feel talking to him how much he loves this theatre, his veneration not just for the sport’s great testing grounds, but for Test cricket itself.
“I would hate the idea of Test cricket not being there. I really do. It is definitely the best format. It challenges like no other. You’ve got to manage so many things and adapt to so many aspects. From a playing point of view that’s what makes it the greatest format. I just think it would be such a shame if it were to be diminished.”
Root is still clear on a personal level that he harbours ambitions to play in the IPL, and talks with some awe of the intensity of competition, although he stops short of committing himself to the forthcoming auction. He is clearly disappointed to be excluded from England’s current T20 World Cup campaign (a move that might just backfire should they find themselves chasing on a slow, grippy track) but has huge admiration (“He’s been phenomenal”) for the incumbent No3, Dawid Malan. “I’d love to see him make some really big scores at the back end of this tournament. From a more selfish point of view it would put him in a good place going to Australia.
It is always lurking, that obsession, at the end of Root’s great year of plenty. England will travel without any great expectation. But they have hope in their captain, a great batsman with one last step still to take, and in his returning best mate.