July 1, 2013

There's something about Joe

Joe Root is the adorable nephew of English cricket and when he bats it is almost impossible to suppress a smile

Sport is unlike most addictions. If you really care about the outcome of a game, most of the time you spend watching it will be miserable. Even the celebrations of the good times - a wicket, a goal or a try - usually involve an angry yell or a clenched fist. The outcome is often joyous, the process rarely so. Except when you watch Joe Root bat.

It is hard to remember the last time it was such sheer fun to watch an English cricketer. Top sportsmen usually engage the spine or the hairs of the back of the neck rather than the jowls, but when Root bats it is almost impossible to suppress a smile. He is the adorable nephew of English cricket.

Nothing in sport has quite the same charm as the emergence of a talented young player, yet Root's impact extends way beyond that. He combines qualities that, if not quite mutually exclusive, are generally hard for most human beings to synchronise. He personifies youth yet is obviously mature beyond his years; he is the head boy who is also a bit of a rascal; he's a nice person yet clearly not to be messed with; he bats like the whole thing is a wonderful lark, yet is furious when he is dismissed. There is considerable depth to his character. In a recent interview with Root, his under-13 coach Jack Bethel described him as "a bloody brilliant advert for young people".

The fact Root looks so young would be much less noteworthy were it not accompanied by such infectious effervescence and indefinable charisma. It is painfully obvious that Root has got it, as a cricketer and a human being. He captures what it is to be young, talented and having the time of your life. When he celebrates a catch or a wicket, it feels like the whole crowd celebrates a bit more because it's him. Root's is a warm, happy story with no catch. He reminds us that the word "sport" used to have a much broader definition.

This is not to say Root is naïve or a dreamer. Quite the contrary. He has a quiet steel that evokes Mike Atherton, and his innate toughness is almost more intimidating because of the way he looks. Root's toughness is part of his startling maturity. His walk to the wicket isn't exactly in Viv Richards territory but it is striking in its purpose. He bustles to the crease like somebody who has received a formal invitation to make himself at home and who has a secret cure for nervousness.

On his Test debut, he sauntered out like he was off on his paper round. "It was just the confidence that he walked out to bat with in his debut Test match in India, two spinners bowling, from each end, we'd just lost a wicket or a couple of wickets," Kevin Pietersen said last week. "He walked out with a smile on his face, and went, 'All right lad, you okay, you're playing well there.' And I was like, 'Mate! I've played 90-odd Test matches and I don't walk out like that.' But it's brilliant for English cricket, absolutely brilliant." Pietersen is in agreement with everyone else: there's something about Joe.

As bubbly as he is, Root is not the owner of a batting bubble; he invariably adjusts his innings to the demands of the team

He has only been an international cricketer for seven months. He has played 26 innings, none in his natural position of opener, instead showing the adaptability of a veteran utility man. It's not often the case that you shuffle a batting order to ease a young player into the side, yet England are happy for Root to bat anywhere. He has been given an extraordinary level of responsibility - England trusted him to run almost before he could walk - and has justified it at every turn.

His selflessness and resourcefulness are also those of an established star. As bubbly as he is, Root is not the owner of a batting bubble; he invariably adjusts his innings to the demands of the team. On his Test debut he had the patience to make 73 from 229 balls with only four fours on a lifeless Nagpur track; in a low-scoring, slow-scoring Test against New Zealand at Lord's in May he made a match-winning 71 from 120 balls in the second innings; in the following Test, after becoming the first Yorkshire batsman to make his maiden Test century at Headingley, he showed no regard for his average in making 28 from 22 balls to set up a declaration. He often takes greater risks than his senior partners for the good of the team and regularly starts an innings aggressively, particularly in his running between the wickets, to wrest the initiative.

If Root's understanding of the game and awareness are extraordinary, so is his self-assurance. The level of media attention after he was punched by David Warner would have paralysed many 22-year-olds; in his first innings after that incident he made a jaunty 55-ball 68 against Sri Lanka. Root is a three-dimensional batsman, with the game for all formats, yet you would struggle to recall too many of his shots in his burgeoning international career. He has left more expansive talents in his slipstream because there is such obvious substance to his work. His greatest quality at the crease is his decision-making; he hardly ever makes the wrong one. That may seem almost mundane, but excellence is often the unspectacular repetition of simple achievement.

All of this is why there are few concerns about Root opening in the Ashes. Ordinarily it would be seen as a huge risk to feed a 22-year-old to the big, bad Australian wolf, but everything Root has done so far suggests there will be no problem. And even if there is, you would expect him to find a way round it. Root's performances so far bring to mind Alex Ferguson's assessment of the teenage Paul Scholes: "If he doesn't make it, we might as well all pack up and go home." Root is surely going to score thousands of Test runs. But it's the way he scores them that will provide the greatest pleasure.