Every cricket team ends up reflecting the character of its leader, and the England Test side is now Joe Root’s to fashion around his. The Australian writer Adam Collins travelled up to Sheffield to meet a very English virtuoso.
The Captain Class by Sam Walker is a new book that measures what he describes as “the hidden force that creates the world’s greatest teams”.
The “one emphatic conclusion” the author arrives at after 11 years’ obsessive chronicling of sporting dynasties back to the 1880s is that “the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it”.
Top of the bounce. Balls of his feet. Punching past point. The ball slamming into the rope, barely having left the floor. The degree of difficulty of all this is deceptively high, yet it looks effortless. Adored by purists, relished by the rest. With Joe Root, it is all a bit too easy.
The best batsman in his country, part of the most accomplished quartet of stylists in the world, appointed captain of England weeks after his 26th birthday. By any cricketing measure, he didn’t just win the lottery of life, he put the proceeds into Apple stock in 2003.
It’s this visage, of Root the entertainer, that we already know well. Leading by example through weight of runs is not for nothing, and is what he does best. But leadership done well is more than being good at the game. Those who drive a culture of success have a broader grounding, more complex aims. This becomes the new question of Root – sure, he carries a dozen cricket bats, but does he have those other clubs in his bag?
Will he marry integrity and patience and candour to timing and placement? What about in Brisbane this November when it’s 100 degrees in the shade and Australia have three quicks spitting it around the ears at 95mph? Ricky Ponting is one of three cricket captains cited by Walker, alongside Steve Waugh and Clive Lloyd. The great Australian first-drop says the Ashes is the theatre where all captains of both countries are invariably judged.
So to help find out whether Root has something more, to see what’s under the hood of England’s luxury vehicle, AOC went back in time with him to his primary school in Sheffield. We left surprised by what we found.
“I am writing to inform you that we should allow more refugees into our country,” opens a letter on proud display from a student as you enter Dore Primary. “If we do allow more refugees then we could change millions of lives.” It’s addressed to the prime minister.
That is how you treat people – with respect
Another details that half of Syria’s children cannot attend school. “I am writing to you to try and change your opinion on the Syrian refugee crisis,” it reads. “Refugees have risked their lives to cross the perilous ocean just for a safe place to stay and you’re denying them that.”
Six miles south of Sheffield, it’s a school that Chris Stewart, Root’s former teacher and later club captain, says always placed a value on compassion. “It was really important that they knew about children less fortunate than the kids who come here,” he recalls. “We always had charity events going on and Joe was always involved.”
“That was my upbringing,” Root says when asked about the emphasis placed on empathy as a young boy. “That is how you treat people – with respect. Make sure you look after people around you and it holds you in good stead going forward in terms of leadership.”
Plastered on the walls are the school’s values: resilience, kindness, resourcefulness and creativity. “All the best leaders have those qualities,” he continues. “I like to think the grounding I have had, and the background I have had and been raised with, will help me going forward. Hopefully that can be infectious.”
Let’s be blunt: these are hardly words you instinctively imagine coming from a privileged sportsman at the peak of his powers. While Root doesn’t claim to be a rocket scientist, it’s clear he has spent some time considering the wider worth of leading a team that thinks.
“We have some great blokes in the team who know how to behave and interact with people not just in the squad but those outside cricket who hold all those values as well,” he adds. “When you have the same views, you become closer as a team.”
Asked by a student what he would be doing if not for cricket, Root says studying art at university. Again, a distant departure from the usual script. At school he was Join-In Joe; where other young athletes might let their talent keep them aloof, his curiosity stretched well beyond how to rack up runs.
Head teacher at Dore, Ian Wildman, remembers a boy who set a “good example” to his peers, well before he was revered. “The main thing was, he would listen.” In keeping with this, and knowing his trajectory as Alastair Cook’s successor, Root seeks out critical feedback from England’s media manager after press engagements. He understands his words carry weight and wants to get them right. He is stepping into a complex job and isn’t naïve enough to think the answers will come by instinct.
So he wants to read, albeit not at the expense of overloading his mind with “preconceived ideas”. And he wants to consult leaders from both inside and outside the game. That will include long-term mentor Michael Vaughan, who did exactly the same before leading England. He took soundings from captains of industry to learn the art of capturing the room with his voice, and body language experts to influence how his side presented on the field.
Little sod now, isn’t he?
“He used to have a metaphorical cap which he would take off when he was fielding and put on his peg, if you like, and put a different one on when he went out to bat so that he felt that was him as a batsman and him as a captain,” Root says, suggesting he will do the same. “Whether that would work for me I don’t know, but he seemed successful.” In this context, it is clear why Vaughan’s criticism of Root’s England as having “a lack of respect” for Test cricket, stung so much.
Root will probably still be a pest in the slips cordon. Stewart says he has been since he was a teenager at Sheffield Collegiate Cricket Club in the South Yorkshire League. Stump microphones don’t lie. “Little sod now, isn’t he?” he says of his former pupil.
And he’ll never be far away from the club, either. Last summer, he showed up unannounced to run drinks for the team. “It’s important to stay grounded and know where you came from,” he says of his properly northern origins. Snow is falling during this school visit, well over a month into the season. It’s a reminder that there are easier places to have learned the game.
It isn’t a universal view that Root should be taking the reins. In Australia, the Test captaincy is sincerely badged the country’s second most important job after prime minister. Root laughs when the comparison is put to him. It may not be quite so pronounced in modern England, but the responsibility is inescapable.
Some, like Graeme Swann, believe he is too great – that Root should be left to become the player of his generation. Others point to his inexperience, citing tactical limitations on display when Middlesex hunted down 472 in the fourth innings of a County Championship fixture in 2014. Others argue that any risks are heightened with firebrand Ben Stokes as his deputy, maturing though he is.
The cricket counterargument to his lack of readiness is found in a single innings: the 254 Root tallied at Manchester last July against Pakistan. The calm and mindful hand came the week after he capitulated twice at Lord’s in a way that a team’s most important player cannot. One of the enduring images of that defeat was a reckless Root caught in the deep.
A refusal to let it happen again underpinned 10 hours of almost flawless batting; 618 minutes across six sessions. Throughout, he explained he set about a rigid process of deep breathing each time he felt disengaged at the crease, a plan devised with assistant coach Ottis Gibson beforehand. To settle himself and go again and again.
It marked a moment in time when a switch was flicked, proving through his actions his realisation that even the most prodigious talent only goes so far. Any ability must be coupled with grit. He dictated terms starting with his mental approach. It’s a clear example of leading from the front.
Nasser Insane. Harmy’s nightmare. Mitch’s moustache.
So now he joins those other three international wunderkinder – Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson – as a Test captain. Eight fewer games than the Kiwi, 476 days younger than the Aussie, 97 more career runs than the Indian. Neatly grouped statistically as the four most important players in the global game.
What the others don’t have is an Ashes series to navigate as their first leadership trip abroad. Root has a complicated history with Australia and the urn. His 180 at Lord’s from 2013 can never be taken off the honours board, even if he was sorted out by Ryan Harris afterwards.
In the return bout, he stood up to Mitchell Johnson when others couldn’t at Brisbane, then in Adelaide for a time, yet was out of the side by Sydney. He feared for his career. By the return bout in 2015, he was man of the series, with a matchwinning reputation sealed.
But do Australians venerate him the way the English begrudgingly do Smith for his absurd run of three-figure outings? Not yet. He’s still the guy David Warner belted. Ironically, Warner since then has had the biggest influence on Australia’s own internal cultural shift, from the snarling pack of dogs that howled at Faf du Plessis, to a relatively quiet bunch of young men who are sometimes criticised for being too nice.
None of this will change the atmosphere of Brisbane, the joint where Australia haven’t lost for nigh-on three decades; as punishing and unforgiving a venue as there is on the planet. Where England captains have bitten the dust as a matter of course.
Nasser Insane. Harmy’s nightmare. Mitch’s moustache. They need no further explanation. “When you go to Australia you are asked whether you can perform in hostile environments against high pace,” Root recalls from the last time around. “There will be questions.”
There sure will, with Root on the receiving end of more than anyone. That’s the way it works in Australia; nothing more certain than that Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson and Pat Cummins will target and try to unsettle the England No.1 any way they can.
But psychological wounds are less pronounced for both sides, with so much regeneration since last they met. This isn’t Clarke and Johnson and Haddin. It may not even be Jimmy Anderson. It’s the summer where Generation Next has morphed into Generation Now, the teams led by two legitimate matchwinners, each contesting their first Ashes Test in charge.
Through it all, we may see sides prepared to play with blood spilled on the pitch, but also a deep appreciation of each other’s talents. This generation has cricketers aware that you don’t have to be a bastard to be tough. That the nimblest minds are as dangerous as the broadest blades. For that, England have their totem in Joe Root. If he can chart a course to victory on Australian shores, at the first time of asking, save a place for him in Sam Walker’s next edition.