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His young features bely a grown-up temperament and steely focus that prompted England to test Joe Root's leadership credentials
May 7, 2013
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Series/Tournaments: New Zealand tour of England
Sometimes the best captains never actively seek the job. They are invited to lead because others perceive qualities that they themselves regard as second nature and therefore nothing out of the ordinary. Joe Root could be one of those captains.
Root has had scant experience of leadership in his formative years, yet his elevation to the Lions captaincy against New Zealand at Grace Road on Wednesday, the final warm-up before the Lord's Test, is the latest accolade in a quite remarkable year.
Long innings of intense fortitude after his breakthrough to England's Test side have been followed by the most abundant, free-flowing form of his life - 467 runs in three first-class innings for Yorkshire, a batting talent suddenly flowering - with the excitement of the Champions Trophy and back-to-back Ashes series ahead.
But there has been so much emphasis on Root's slip-of-a-lad countenance, the impression that he is a boy amongst men, that his captaincy credentials have gained little attention. When he broke into the England team you could sense people looking at him in wonder and exclaiming: "You ain't nothing but a child." Now the child is in charge.
The official view, as expounded by Geoff Miller, the national selector, is that he had been given the role "in order to assist his development as a cricketer and provide him with valuable experience of captaincy against quality opposition". Andy Flower, England's director of cricket, is uncomfortable about the hype. But the Sun has pitched it higher, pronouncing only four Tests into his England career that he is the likely successor to Alastair Cook.
England do nothing without analysing its impact so it is fair to conclude that something is afoot. The selectors wanted Root to lead the Lions on a one-day tour of Australia last winter only to pass the job on to James Taylor when Root was called up for the full tour in New Zealand. They are grateful for a second chance. Fast-tracking young players into the England set up means that captaincy opportunities come rarely.
Root has the sort of maturity that takes time to be recognised, a serious intent which was not always noticed by his peers during his teenage years when more fast-talking, outgoing characters held sway. His strength of character emerges subtly but it is apparent to all those who deal with his cricket on a daily basis.
At Yorkshire, they were wise to his gifts. He was the youngest player ever to be awarded a scholarship to the Yorkshire Academy, at only 13. Ian Dews, Yorkshire's academy director, who has known the Root family since his playing days in the Yorkshire League, still remembers a young man who found himself pushed forward when it came to the crunch.
"He was often the youngest in the group but he never took a backward step," Dews said. "In any group of players he was the one who would lead. We would do classroom presentations on dealing with the media or time management and it would often be, 'go on Rooty, you have a go'.
"He'd have battles when he was not strong enough to hit it off the square but you knew that when he did develop as a cricketer they would struggle to get him out. When he practices, he does so to the finest detail."
Andrew Gale, Yorkshire's captain, can expect to see little of Root for the rest of the season, but he recognises his influence on and off the field. His unbeaten 182 against Durham, followed by 236 against Derbyshire, fashioned two victories that have stabilised Yorkshire's start to their Championship campaign, but Gale knows that his value goes deeper than that. "He's 22 and he's a big voice in our dressing room," Gale said. "He speaks like a 35-year-old."
Paul Farbrace arrived at Yorkshire as second XI coach, after more high-profile spells as Sri Lanka's assistant coach and Kent's director of cricket, eager to concentrate on player development again. He has grown to admire Root's qualities. "He is so committed to learning and understanding the game he will make an excellent captain," Farbrace said. "Underneath that exterior is a very hard-working, steely, gutsy character.
"He speaks his mind more than some might imagine. He has always had strong opinions and is foremost in speaking up and expressing his views. He has a great desire for knowledge; he is an absolute sponge.
"The toughness you see when he is batting goes through is always apparent. He is up there with Kumar Sangakkara when it comes to working hard on his technique. He is the absolute benchmark for any kid. He is full of hard work and dedication."
Cricket has fascinated Root since childhood and his immersion in it gives him many of the qualities inherent in a good captain. He is a natural believer in setting goals, both individually and for the team. His dedication and, latterly, his achievements work in his favour when it comes to commanding respect. So too does a belief in his even-handedness and equilibrium. If he can find the same mental stimulation in captaincy he does in batting, he can make a success of the job.
In choosing captains, England no longer place much store by charisma. Ted Dexter had charisma in the 1960s but if the game drifted, Dexter could drift too, practising his golf swing at square leg. What some people saw as charisma in David Gower was condemned by the Yorkshire sage Geoffrey Boycott as flippancy. Mike Brearley, who was briefly replaced by a superficially more charismatic captain in Ian Botham, later observed: "Charisma seems to me to be a most limited asset for a captain."
When it comes to it, what England require from a captain is somebody steadfast, patient and analytical; somebody who can develop naturally from knowing his game to knowing the game. On Thursday, they will begin to discover whether Joe Root is that man.
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