In Root, England have something special to savour
For those who saw it, the quality and thrill of the stroke with which David Gower announced his Test match career will live forever. The year was 1978, the ground Edgbaston, the opponent Pakistan and the bowler Liaqat Ali. The ball was more long hop than bouncer and with typical, priceless charm the most gifted batsman of a generation swivelled and pulled it to the square-leg boundary. As first balls go, this one did. The gasps of admiration - one huge self-satisfied British drool - were heard in every corner of the Empire.
Twelve months previously, Ian Botham had captured our imagination with his derring-do debut against Australia. Could it really be that England, the England of grim county pros and leaden grey skies had thrown us another diamond? Yes, it darn well could. Botham and Gower sparkled for more than a decade, papering over cracks in the English game that manifested themselves with alarming clarity once they had gone.
Wind the clock on some 35 years. In an over of memorable audacity at Headingley on Saturday, Joe Root drove through midwicket, swept past short fine-leg and then, after the New Zealand captain had rearranged the field to strengthen the leg side, reverse-swept into the off-side space created by the move. Think of it like this, six Tests in and the kid was taking the mickey.
Not for a moment though is this the reason we should celebrate. There is more, masses more to Root than a reverse sweep. Not since Gower has an English-born batsman of such pedigree caught the eye. Graham Thorpe was close but not so clear-headed. Michael Vaughan was every bit as good, but in bursts. Indeed, Vaughan's batting in Australia on the 2002-03 tour was as good as anyone in the modern era. Ask Shane Warne, who saw it from 22 yards away and felt that only Sachin Tendulkar had the Australians so covered. It is too soon to judge Root that good or, conversely, to wonder if his downtime could be so disheartening as that experienced by Vaughan.
What we know is that the basics are spot on, the temperament sound and the appetite insatiable. Like Gower, and like Thorpe and Vaughan, come to think of it, Root's game is set up on the back foot. This is unusual among English batsmen in the age of the covered pitch and unusual full-stop given the modern fondness for a forward press and a thumping drive.
Vaughan had two strokes that made his name: a truly beautiful cover drive, executed with a good stride to the pitch of the ball, a high left elbow, and a straight and free-flowing blade that preceded a lovely break of the wrists in the follow-through. And he had a killer pull stroke, made by the certainty of the cover drive, because bowlers dare not pitch too full.
Thorpe could cut, pull and deflect with a surgeon's precision. He was a square-of-the-wicket specialist but with a punch drive down the ground that withered an ordinary bowler. But Thorpe fought an inner demon that messed with his belief. This, in turn, compromised his ability to change the course of a match as he might persistently have done. At his best - in Sri Lanka against Muttiah Muralitharan, for example - he could do pretty much anything, but his genius was elusive and frustrating.
Gower was almost unreasonably talented. The options at his disposal, the responses, the range, the variety that was given him, well, one wondered if such riches were a confusion. He could delight and he could infuriate but he emptied bars. No cricketer can have been so driven by the desire to entertain, save Denis Compton perhaps. The flashes and flights of fancy were as much a part of the show as the square drives and late cuts that seemed to have been conceived, never mind played, at the last possible moment. This was an artist with the softest hands, the most delicate touch and the most enviable timing. When he chose to apply it, Gower was the most fluent and enjoyable of English batsmen, a mismatch to the stereotype of the professional game.
There is a bit of all of these fine batsman in Root: the Root of Yorkshire, who made that fabulous hundred at Yorkshire's famous cricketing place on Saturday. There is Vaughan's composure and presence, Thorpe's flexibility and accuracy, and there is Gower's sense of magic, to go with that blond and innocent teenage kick.
Like Thorpe, he is a busy cricketer, stealing runs when they seem not to be there. Like Vaughan, he can drive from a perfect position off the back foot, which forces a bowler to change his length. Like Gower, he can score in a 360-degree radius thus challenging captains to find new solutions to an old problem, that there are only nine fielders with which to defend.
Unlike any of them, he has an awkward, rather crabby stance with his feet positioned wide apart and the bat set between them as it was with Bradman (no bad thing, I hear you cry!). He holds that bat at waist height, not so apparently as Graham Gooch, but a little more obviously than, say, Vaughan. The face is shut in the backlift but the wrists cock perfectly to allow free strokeplay. Better than anyone in the game today, Root uses the depth of the crease, giving himself more time to play than your average Joe. In this way, he is a throwback, rather as Gower was too.
Already he is my favourite current batsman, a position in heart and mind long occupied by Tendulkar. The attention and adulation seems to suit him, after all only Yorkshire luminaries such as FS Jackson, Sir Leonard Hutton, Geoffrey Boycott and Vaughan himself have made hundreds at Headingley and none of them managed it at the first time of asking. English cricket has someone special to savour. Buy a ticket if you can.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK