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Root: 'I average more with reverse scoop than with forward defence'

England batter reflects on his white-ball game, the Ashes, his bond with Ben Stokes, and more

Joe Root is enjoying the challenges white-ball cricket has thrown at him  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Joe Root is enjoying the challenges white-ball cricket has thrown at him  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Like most fathers in their early 30s, Joe Root has recently resurrected an old hobby now that his firstborn, Alfie, is old enough - Mario Kart.
It was once a regular indulgence on England duty. Root's go-to character is "Shy Guy", partly because he grew tired of the arguments with regular sparring partner Mark Wood over who got to be Yoshi.
"My lad is six now and he watched that Super Mario movie," Root explains to ESPNcricinfo. "We got Mario Kart out the other day and he absolutely loved it."
Root brings this up because, when it comes to white-ball cricket, he feels like he is in last place on Rainbow Road. Far back enough to need a few special items to overtake those in front of him if he is to move forward as a multi-format cricketer.
"It almost felt like you're the one being chased and now you get the chance to try to catch everyone else up again," Root says. "You want the star, or the rocket you get when you're at the back that gives you a boost to overtake other people. It doesn't always work out like that but you've got nothing to lose, do you?
"I'm fully aware that I'm way down the pecking order compared to the other guys. But that's almost quite a nice challenge to have at the age I am and the career that I've had."
It seems unnecessarily self-effacing for one of England's greatest batters, particularly as Root prepares to help defend their 50-over World Cup crown this autumn. It will be his fourth white-ball World Cup, and he has made it into Jos Buttler's squad of 15 for India this autumn ahead of dynamic talents like Harry Brook, Ben Duckett and Will Jacks. It's also worth noting he was England's top-scorer in 2019's success with 556 runs.
He is highly regarded, which is an odd set of words to type out when talking about Root and batting, but it feels necessary given he talks of his game as if there is something missing. Since relinquishing the Test captaincy at the start of the 2022 summer, he has looked to rectify that by being more proactive in the franchise market, resulting in stints for Dubai Capitals in the ILT20 and a couple of appearances for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL earlier this year.
"I've harped on about it for what seems like forever, but I feel like I don't ever get to play white-ball cricket anymore," Root explains. "When I stepped down as Test captain, I saw it as a great opportunity to get in and around some more white-ball cricket. I searched out a little bit this year with the ILT20 and the IPL.
"The way I see it, it's about opening your mind up again and exploring new things which I think improves every facet and format of your game. Because if you want to keep getting better and help your teams succeed, you need to find ways to evolve and improve."
To watch Root over the last year is to see a batter with horizons broadened, based on Test performances alone. The 1527 runs scored across 18 caps under Ben Stokes have come at a better average (58.73) and strike rate (75.63) than his first four years under Sir Alastair Cook (52.80 and 55.00), not to mention the five years he held the top job (46.44 and 54.35).
Beyond the numbers is a newly adopted verve at the crease. And, of course, that reverse-lap-scoop. From the jump to stand square-on to the bowler like a matador, right to the moment he flips the ball over the slips, it is perhaps the most outlandish sight in a Test set-up encouraged by head coach Brendon McCullum to push the envelope constantly.
To more traditional observers, it is akin to catching the head boy smoking behind the bike sheds with a can of Red Stripe on the go. But it works. Beyond a couple of hair-raising moments - the opening day dismissal in the first New Zealand Test back in February, the play and miss off Pat Cummins to the first ball of day four of the first Ashes Test - it has been a banker. All in all, Root has 60 runs from the 19 scoops played since the start of last summer, 12 for boundaries, of which half have gone the distance.
"The hardest thing to hone with that shot was being terrified of getting it wrong and looking stupid in a Test match," he says. "Almost the bravery of just saying, 'I've got to trust everything I've been practising and just give myself the best chance of doing it by staying in the shot'.
"The other hardest thing was playing it the next time having got out in Mount Maunganui. I'm sure there were people out there giving me pelters. 'Imagine doing that on day one of a Test match?!' At the same time, I think I average near enough 100 with that shot. I average more with that than with the forward defence, and I've got out with that plenty of times! What's the difference, really? I get more runs from the other one."
But the bat-face turned around, the feet momentarily in the air, the first ball of an Ashes day, Joe?
"It's the change in mentality. What you perceive as risk and what you perceive as failure. Just because someone thinks it's risky doesn't necessarily mean it is. I played that shot at The Oval against Mitch Marsh. I hit that [for six] and he tries to bowl a leg-stump yorker, he misses and it goes down to fine leg for four. He doesn't bowl the next over, someone else has to come back. They are calculated ways of manipulating the game that might look unusual in a Test setting but it's just managing risk in a different mindset."
"The other hardest thing was playing it [reverse scoop] the next time having got out in Mount Maunganui. I'm sure there were people out there giving me pelters. 'Imagine doing that on day one of a Test match?!'"
Such a shift in the way Root thinks about the game, specifically run-scoring, is remarkable considering he was raised on a high front elbow and playing in the V. Not to mention some past mistakes that could have left an imprint on his psyche.
He can picture his dismissal in the 2016 T20 World Cup final to this day - "scooping Carlos Brathwaite, caught in the circle" - and laments that he should have gone on. His innings ended on 54, as did a rebuilding stand of 61 with Buttler.
Though Brathwaite finished the match with four consecutive sixes against Stokes in the final over, Root still harbours regret that he was the reason England only had 155 to defend. Balancing that is a sense of perspective: "I mean, how else am I going to score my runs if I can't hit the ball behind me?" he laughs, offering another not-so-veiled dig at his capacity to clear the ropes.
The latest chapter in Root's quest to expand his repertoire has come in the Hundred, the only domestic cricket he will play this summer. He has donned the yellow of Trent Rockets for the third season in a row, and it is no coincidence he has been chosen to play a more significant role in 2023.
The first of his six outings so far came nine days after the 2-2 Ashes scoreline was confirmed at The Oval. In those, his 142 runs off 92 balls has put him third on Rockets' run charts, with the fourth-best strike rate. It is also a feather in Root's short-format cap that he has been used as an opener at the expense of England's current T20I No. 3, Dawid Malan. The last of Root's 32 T20I caps came in May 2019.
Defeat to Oval Invincibles on Monday means victory for either Welsh Fire on Tuesday or Southern Brave on Thursday will end Rockets' season before the knockout stages. Still, Root feels the format has helped reinforce belief in his own process.
"The great thing about this format when you're chasing is you never feel you're out of it," Root says. "As long as you've got a clear way of getting to the end goal and breaking it down. The odds might not be in your favour, but as slim as they are, they always give you a chance.
"We played a brilliant game at Lord's versus London Spirit, two strong teams, quality white-ball players on both sides. We were two runs short in the end, but my innings [72 not out off 35], it was a nice reminder, even if I do it a slightly different way to a lot of others, I can still score in my own manner, in my own way. Going into these T20s and ODIs [against New Zealand] in September ahead of the World Cup, that's such a huge positive for me."
As for his thoughts on a competition lamented by many, he sees encouraging signs off the back of a Test summer that ticked the boxes of "entertainment" and "greater engagement" set out as part of the Hundred's objectives.
"It is a very different feel to a lot of other Blast and Friday night cricket. You only have to stay behind at the end of a game for 20 minutes and you see 500 kids waiting for autographs and the guys staying out and signing for them. I think it's great.
"There are clearly a lot of young people that are very interested and engaged in this tournament. That was one of the main goals, wasn't it - bring in a new audience and try to broaden the game out to a different viewership? And it seems to really work. If anything, it has got stronger over the three years and hopefully that will continue."
The stint has allowed him to reconnect with Rockets' head coach Andy Flower, his first England coach, who crossed the divide this summer to work as a consultant for Australia. "Don't worry, he has got plenty of stick for that. I've given him plenty, whether it be in meetings or gentle ribbing around training. He has got nailed."
On the Ashes itself, enough time has passed for Root to have gone through the full range of emotions. Personally, there were 412 runs at 51.50, one century - that opening day at Edgbaston when Stokes declared with him on 118 - and scores of 84 and 91 in the last two Tests. He wanted more, of course. There is also pride at being part of something so captivating, as well as a hint of "what might have been".
"We did pretty much everything we set out to do except win it," Root says. "The first two games, the first one in particular, could definitely have gone a different way. You look back and you think, bar a crazy half-an-hour at Lord's [when England lost three to the hook for 34 in their first innings, Root the third], you'd be sat 5-0 up if everything fell your way perfectly.
"But you can say ifs and buts and all the rest of it. The fact is, we played some really strong cricket, were authentic, and were true to how we wanted to play as a team. It's still in its infancy in many ways. We've played less than 20 games, completely changing how we want to do things. We're going to make mistakes, we're going to get small things wrong occasionally.
"We are on a journey, we are at the start of things. We can't hit a bump in the road where something doesn't go our way the first time and say 'that's it'. It's almost like we're on the second floor of a skyscraper. The lift is going up quickly, but we're nowhere near the top. We're looking to get to the penthouse suite!
"The real aim should be going and winning in Australia and creating a legacy that continues on a bit like the All Blacks. There's a potential there to do what we've done in white-ball cricket in the Test game as well, and pave the way for the next generation to get excited about Test cricket and want to be involved in it. It certainly seems to be that way."
"Are you joking? Did you not see my tenure as captain, the amount of times I would tell him [Stokes] to stop bowling and he would tell me to f*** off?! I didn't see the point in even trying!"
Root clarifies he had nothing to do with Stokes coming out of ODI retirement
It does not take long for praise to be heaped on Stokes, as much for unlocking potential in the group's younger members as for drawing a little more out of Root. Their bond, forged long before Root had his best mate as vice-captain, is unbreakable. Though apparently not strong enough for Root to have had anything to do with Stokes coming out of ODI retirement for the World Cup.
"It's got nothing to do with me! Are you joking? Did you not see my tenure as captain, the amount of times I would tell him to stop bowling and he would tell me to f*** off?! I didn't see the point in even trying!"
Root scoffs at the idea that coming in as defending champions and one of the favourites will mean anything when England start their campaign on October 5 against New Zealand in Ahmedabad. But he does cede the presence of a match-winner in two World Cup finals, in 2019 and 2022, gives them something over the rest.
"You know every other international team are looking thinking, 'Damn, I thought we got rid of him!' At the same time, it fills the rest of the squad with confidence, knowing you've got a proven match-winner who will always seek out those big moments.
"You look at the two World Cup finals we won, and he won for us. Even the one we lost against West Indies in 2016, he still took on the big moment - he wanted that final over. To be able to come back from that in the manner that he has and deliver some of the things he has done in an England shirt is a testament to what a legend he is in the game. Probably, I think, the best player we've ever produced as a country."
Not many within English cricket would dispute that call on Stokes. But it is a bold one, nonetheless, from a player who also has a strong claim for that title. Not that Root himself would make it, of course.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo