India v England, 4th Test, Nagpur, 2nd day December 14, 2012

Root fantasy debut stirs childhood dreams

Joe Root's remarkable Test debut, the sixth longest by an England debutant, was a soft-focus story suitable for Christmas

Watching Joe Root walk out to bat for England felt like a Disney movie. To observe him carrying England's hopes of a Test series victory in India on his slender, young shoulders was to recognise a childhood dream. But we all knew it wasn't actually happening. Was it?

As Root's Test career began, fog and ice blanketed much of England and the talk was of Christmas. Half a world away in Nagpur, here was an innings much in that festive mood, an innocent story that might have been shot in soft focus, complete with Test commentary by Alan Bennett, except that it was more Wield of the Willow than Wind in the Willows. Parp! Parp!

Joe Root is 21, an adult Test cricketer, old enough for many years now to shave without cutting himself, but it is his lot in life that when he plays thoughts still revert to childhood and days are recalled when you, too, imagined that the ball you had just driven into a neighbouring garden, complete with a photographic recall of the Playfair Cricket Annual, was the first, small step on a Test debut for England.

There have been more than 50 England Test debutants younger than Root; it is just that most of them looked so much older. Brian Close, a fellow Yorkshireman, was the youngest of all, at 18 years and 149 days but surely Closey never looked as young as Root. They were very different animals: Close, called up against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1949, was dismissed trying to hit his third ball for six. Close had a physical prowess that meant you would not want to cross him in a bar; Root would be barred from the bar until he had fumbled for his ID.

The joke at the start of the India tour, as Root practised assiduously in the nets, was that England were giving their mascot a go. It is the sort of observation to which he has long become inured. He has earned their respect now after producing the sixth longest debut innings, in terms of balls faced, by an England debutant.

In many ways, Nagpur was a perfect situation for him. A desperately slow, uneven pitch demanded infinite patience, reliable thought processes and limited ambitions. All that comes naturally to Root, who, from an early age, has sought to unravel the game with exactitude. There are times watching him bat when he seems not to be batting as much as cramming for an examination.

This was an innings that was battling without being battle-hardened, steadfast without being particularly courageous - courage doesn't really come into it when India field only one fast bowler who can barely get it above stump high - and precise without giving the slightest sense of sophistication. It was innings of youthful virtue and it was none the worse for that.

"I have been wanting and dreaming about this opportunity for a very long time," he said. "You just try and adapt to the conditions and the situation and make the most of what you have got. I tried to be as patient as possible and keep it as simple as possible. It would be wrong to say there were no nerves when you are waiting to bat in Test cricket for the first time but I had a good team around me and when I once in the middle I was very relaxed and in a good place to play."

Few players have been identified by England as early in life as Joe Root. It would be no surprise to find that his DNA was secretly mapped by the ECB - and at a time when it was considerably more expensive. He is not particularly athletic and has rarely scored his runs quickly but has been worth the effort because his instincts for self-betterment are immense. Fortitude comes in many forms.

From the time he first knocked up on the boundary at Sheffield Collegiate in the Yorkshire League, watching his dad bat with Michael Vaughan, an England captain in the making, Root has had tuition and good influences whenever he has needed it. His brother Billy is among MCC's 2012 Young Cricketers' intake. Opportunity and expert advice has never been far away.

He has not scored runs heavily at any level, not destroyed attacks in the manner of a young Gower, Trescothick or Vaughan, and his first-class record remains modest, but England have spotted something they like, enough for them to give him two extensive net sessions ahead of the Test before they preferred him to two more gifted but unpredictable alternatives in Jonny Bairstow or Eoin Morgan.

As in the best Disney movies, his innings carried a comforting moral message. As Root progressed through Yorkshire's age group sides, it was not difficult to alight upon conversations from a minority of lesser team mates deriding the fact that he could hardly hit the ball off the square, that he could not throw much further and that a slightly bow-legged gait gave away his lack of natural athleticism.

Perhaps there were times when all that was true. Even now, he is not about to power in a throw from the longest boundary. But while others fell away, some losing interest in the game altogether, Root's goal never wavered. India will have aged watching him. Root, though, perhaps much to his frustration, did not look a day older.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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  • Dummy4 on December 17, 2012, 11:12 GMT

    One of the best debut I have seen for many many years,, It was just not the runs but the quality that caught my imagination. In todays T20 world it was heartening to watch someone as young and raw as him play like a champion -a la Sachin Tendulakar of 90's .Roots has got a very long way to go. All the best!

  • Anupam on December 16, 2012, 17:55 GMT

    waiting for his century on third day but very well played in this difficult pitch. Root looks like young M.Atherton. i dont know why ENG were not replacing samit earlier. the inning he played of 73 is really awesome.

  • Geoffrey on December 16, 2012, 12:03 GMT

    @ jmcilhinney - mate I don't think any young Indian batsman straight out of Ranji Cup could play like that on ANY type of English Test wicket. Period. England clearly have the far stronger first class competition.

  • John on December 15, 2012, 21:36 GMT

    Have to say I was impressed with the way he went about the job and looked far more accomplished than one of our established batsman in his very 1st inns. What I also liked was the annoyance he showed at getting out - as if he wasn't happy with just getting a 50. That showed a huge desire in the guy. Good luck to him

  • Michael on December 15, 2012, 18:33 GMT

    I really did not see the unfolding of the Boy's Own type of dream or some childhoodfantasy, but a hardnosed gritty knock which showed considerable maturity. He may look boyish in some ways but look at the eyes. Not so boyish I fancy. A certain Antipodean regurgitates pastiches upon previous Pavlovian responses and I wonder whether even his fellow country men can stand him at all which is why he is in exile here. Boring is not the word.

  • Paul on December 15, 2012, 13:10 GMT

    Good article. It was the way he took the singles, on a difficult scoring pitch, by facing the bat (more safely) to the direction of spin, as sub-continent players do. Good temperament too; how much influence did Sir Geoffrey or Michael Vaughan have in his earlier years?

  • John on December 15, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    @ygkd on (December 15 2012, 01:16 AM GMT), your comment doesn't really make any sense. How exactly does the fact that someone may have identified Root as a potential England player early on translate to a reliance on foreign-born players? Exactly how has the development of other English players suffered as a result?

  • John on December 15, 2012, 12:47 GMT

    @Hammond on (December 14 2012, 21:50 PM GMT), no I can't but then Root was not playing on a raging Bunsen either, so the comparison doesn't exactly hold up. The pitch was tricky because it required concentration and dedication to the task but a set batsman who didn't get too adventurous was difficult to dislodge. Root did a fine job, no doubt, but there's no need to falsely denigrate the opposition.

  • Dummy4 on December 15, 2012, 4:33 GMT

    Joe Root did look rooted and what was amazing about him was the patience that we showed we could say that he was a timeless classic in this innings. A young guy from england on the debut batted like a Budda, which is a rarity in this fast paced world.I wish that this guy will go a long way and will be an asset to the world cricket.

  • Philip on December 15, 2012, 1:16 GMT

    The fact he's not particularly athletic is not a problem. The fact he bats at snail's pace is only half a problem. But the possibility that England think it's a good idea to identify talent in the cradle, so to speak, and put so many eggs in one basket will ensure it's continuing reliance on South African expats.

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