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Joe Root: 'I've never had more fun playing professional cricket'

Ex-captain 'buzzing' about Test team's potential after summer of expanding horizons

Joe Root shares a joke with Ben Stokes at the end of the third Test  •  Getty Images

Joe Root shares a joke with Ben Stokes at the end of the third Test  •  Getty Images

In the aftermath of England's convincing nine-wicket win over South Africa in their last Test of the summer, Joe Root was asked when he realised things were just a little different under the leadership of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
Not only did he agree that they were, he was able to pinpoint a specific moment too, when a format that he has spent more than a decade playing, watching and analysing made his jaw drop. It was during the second of their six Tests wins this summer, as Jonny Bairstow (136) and Stokes (75 not out) blazed New Zealand all over Trent Bridge in a 179-run stand off just 121 deliveries to complete a fourth-innings chase of 299 in just 50 overs.
"There was a moment at Trent Bridge when me and Zak Crawley sat down in that last session with a crossword," said Root, setting the scene. "We did one answer and within three overs, we'd put the book down and couldn't take our eyes off it. It was like watching a highlights reel of a T20 game, never mind a Test match. It was remarkable.
"Some of the things we'd never seen before in Test cricket happened in a short space of time. It's nice to know what we're capable of. It almost feels like - I hate drawing the comparison, but there is a small feeling of what it was like when we started to make those really big scores in the white-ball team. That's the exciting thing - what is the limit, how far can we go? You look at what that team has achieved over a period of time. I know it is early days and a lot of different elements to Test cricket, compared to the white-ball format, but it is very exciting that there is the same sort of vibe around, in my mind anyway."
It is hard not to feel we are in unchartered territory when it comes to this men's Test side. Here is a group not only rekindling the English public's love for cricket, but also inspiring those within their own changing-room. And it is probably through Root that we can gauge the authenticity of what McCullum and Stokes have cultivated this summer. The results speak for themselves, with series wins against New Zealand and South Africa sandwiching a one-off win over India to square the 2021 series two-all. But the vibes are something else and even someone as comfortable in his standing as Root has been revitalised by a fun, more social environment.
"It's been absolute class," he said. "It's been great to be part of, so much fun to play the way we have played, and to win six out of seven is a reflection of the quality with which we've played. It makes the winter and beyond look very exciting for this team. To know there's still more potential and areas we can improve is the most exciting part of it. We're definitely not the finished article, but to see the strides we've made in such a short space of time has been really a breath of fresh air. I'm buzzing about it, to be honest, looking forward to the next series already!"
You didn't need to be a body language expert to realise just how taxing the captaincy was on Root. By the end of his five years, those baby blues had dulled, his shoulders were in a constant slump, his worries were enough to flatten him, particularly during the pandemic. His only joy seemed to come out in the middle, where he averaged 54 with eight hundreds in his final 20 Tests as skipper. A run, from the start of 2021, in which England won just four times.
During the final throes of his leadership, there was a palpable sadness to the group. An offshoot was the inadvertent isolation of Root. He began hanging out with team-mates less, even if he regarded some of them as long-time friends. Not so much through losing their trust, but a combination of thinking he needed time away from them and thinking they were growing weary of him. It was a lack of consideration and communication that wouldn't happen right now.
"No, I've never had more fun playing professional cricket," Root said in a flash when asked of how he has found the season. "Honestly, it is hard to put into words. You turn up every day and you're very excited about what's going to happen. It's the unknown. It's quite a strange feeling to have played 120-odd games, still to have that feeling when you turn up every day. It's a really good place to be. It keeps you very hungry and motivated. You can bounce off the energy of everybody else who is in the same mindset."
The irony here is, despite a largely productive summer, the 2-1 success over South Africa was done with very little input from Root. He managed just 46 runs from four knocks, although the strength of his work in the first four matches ensured strong season numbers of 615 runs at an average of 68.33, as well as three Test hundreds that moved him to a career total of 28. Though naturally dismayed by the downturn, it has not dimmed his enjoyment over the last month, especially with the success of others to nourish him.
"There's an element of satisfaction in winning," he said. "But my job is to score runs.
"I couldn't be more pleased for some of the other guys - the two lads on Sunday night (Crawley and Alex Lees) to play like that, we could have finished it on Sunday if things were slightly different.
"They've not always managed to go on and make big scores and get the headlines but the impact and damage they've done at the top has certainly had a big influence on the rest of the guys coming in. Popey (Ollie Pope) playing the way he has all summer. He's had a couple of big contributions and you can see the confidence as he walks out to bat at No.3.
"And even Foakesy last week (in the second Test at Emirates Old Trafford). I thought that was a brilliant hundred, dovetailed nicely with Ben. it feels like everything is coming together and we're in a good spot as a team. As a senior batter involved in that, it's nice to have that around you.
Like breakout pop acts, this group's next challenge after taking the country by storm is to have the same impact overseas. The first port of call is Pakistan for three Tests in conditions that will require greater consideration and patience, not that either of those virtues have been lacking with this group - within the team's mindset, at least.
For, although the South Africa series only needed nine days for three results, there were periods of restraint and deliberation factored into each fast-forwarded performance. The new approach, for all the focus on his explosiveness, is primarily rooted in a calm which has been reinforced with each day's play. Root believes now is as good a time as any to take it on the road.
"We'll certainly try. Look at the way we played at Old Trafford [where England scored 415 for nine steadily in 107 overs on the way to winning by an innings] and you can see there's more to it. The most important thing is that when we get the opportunities to force the issue and get ahead of the game then we take it. Every time we've had the opportunity to do that this summer, we've done it extremely well.
"At Old Trafford, you saw a different side to this team, a side that can absorb pressure, can play in a slightly different fashion. We're not just a one-trick pony. There's always going to be periods in Test cricket that you have to manage well and smartly. We've not got it right every time this summer, but we've got it right more often than not, and that's why we're sat here with six out of seven."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo