Root fantasy debut stirs childhood dreams
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