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Preparing for the Ashes by (not) playing in the IPL? For Joe Root, it's a no-brainer

The former England Test captain has warmed the bench for the majority of this IPL season, but he has been using the opportunity to learn constantly

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Joe Root applauds Rajasthan Royals' win from the sidelines, Gujarat Titans vs Rajasthan Royals, IPL 2023, Ahmedabad, April 16, 2023

Drinks on me: Root has spent most of his season with Rajasthan Royals watching from the sidelines  •  BCCI

Joe Root has played 319 times for England across formats, has captained his country 64 times, and has scored 18,048 runs in an international career spanning just over a decade.
But since he arrived in India in late March, he has found himself surplus to requirements. Root spent the first ten games of IPL 2023 on Rajasthan Royals' bench, a pink towel draped around his neck as he fulfilled his duties as the world's most overqualified drinks waiter.
It came as no surprise. Only four overseas players are permitted in each XI. Jos Buttler and Shimron Hetmyer are automatic starters, and Royals opted to use their other spots on two of Jason Holder, Adam Zampa and Trent Boult. Yet it still jarred to see one of the leading batters of his generation acting as 12th man.
In the past week, Root has been tasked with bolstering a hit-and-miss middle order - but even so, his opportunities have been limited. In his first two games, he bowled two tight overs and didn't face a ball as Royals' top order dominated; in his third, he made 10 off 15 balls from No. 4 as they collapsed to the third-lowest total in IPL history.
Back home, the question being asked more than any other is whether Root should be in India at all. The first Ashes Test is a month away, and he has not played a red-ball game since February. Root was sold at base price - Rs 1 crore (US$ 121,600 approximately) - so the financial aspect of his participation is almost incidental.
"It's quite easy, really," Root said in Jaipur, when asked how he would respond to suggestions that he ought to be playing county cricket. "I'll start by saying I love playing for Yorkshire, and I love the County Championship. It's the bedrock of our game back in the UK and it's so influential in developing players.
"But for where I am within my game and my development, having an experience like this for the first time at 32 years old, I feel that's going to benefit me more in the long run than playing four Championship games where I might not learn too much about myself. Look at the fixtures: one of them's already been rained out, one was a rain-affected game and ended up a draw.
"Is that really going to ready me for an Ashes series? Or, by having these experiences here in India six months out from the World Cup, in these conditions, speaking to all these players, trying to learn as much as I can - mainly about T20 cricket, but also having good, strong conversations about the game in general - are they going to make me a better player? I think so.
"And I think that I'll come back ready and excited to dive back into Test cricket and ready for what's going to be an amazing summer of Ashes cricket. It wasn't something that I just did - I thought there was a real plus side to it, and that if I treated the experience in the right way then I would come back in a really good place, with more knowledge and in a better position."
It was just short of a year ago that similar questions were being asked of Jonny Bairstow, as he warmed up for England's first Test of 2022 by playing for Punjab Kings. Three months later he had put together one of the best runs of form in England's Test history, with four hundreds in six matches.
"If you want to, you can look back at anything and say, 'Well, if you didn't do that then, you didn't do that, then you might've done better here,'" Root said. "It doesn't make any difference. It's about how you turn up and you perform when those big games come around. That's what you should be judged on.
"Just look at the schedule in general now. There's so much cricket, all the time. It might have been that [these two months] would've been used as some time off, and I wouldn't have played a huge amount of cricket. Most of the game is played upstairs anyway… It was a no-brainer really, in that respect."
Root has tried to be a "sponge" in India, to "soak up a lot of different information and then try to filter it into my own game". He has spoken at length with Kumar Sangakkara, his head coach. After Royals' opening fixture, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he spent "an hour or so" in the company of Brian Lara. "It's hard not to come away from that as a better player, really," he said.
It has provided him with a rare chance to immerse himself in a format that he has barely played in the four years since his most recent T20 international, on the eve of the 2019 World Cup. In that time, he has played a dozen games in the Vitality Blast, four in the Hundred and five in the ILT20 - thin gruel compared to the banquet of opportunities enjoyed by most of his England team-mates.
"For me, when it comes to T20, I just want to play," Root said. "I just want to be around it. I want to play it. I love the format: I think it's great and if there are opportunities that aren't going to impede on international cricket - first and foremost that'll always be the most important thing for me - then absolutely, I'll try to take them.
"I've benefited a huge amount from just being around T20 again. I'm trying to manage my game better in the format - trying to get a little bit less erratic, and a bit more thoughtful about how I want to go and construct an innings. You can't be formulaic in it, but you're still making sure that you're calculated in what you're doing.
"When you're not playing, it can be quite easy to sulk and moan and feel a little bit sorry for yourself. But at the end of the day, you've got an opportunity here for eight weeks to better yourself and better your game. It'd be silly not to use that opportunity, and use the people and the resources around you."
Root has relished the opportunity to play alongside some international opponents, most notably Yuzvendra Chahal. The pair's dance moves at a team event went viral at the start of the season. "I learned very quickly that anything you do here gets captured on camera," he said with a wry smile. "You have to be very careful."
He has also enjoyed the company of two young team-mates: Dhruv Jurel, the 22-year-old keeper-batter and Yashasvi Jaiswal, the breakthrough batter of IPL 2023. "It's just watching them play with that amount of confidence, almost that naivete to the game," he said. "It is so refreshing. It's something that you almost want to bring back into your own game when you've played a lot and you're a little bit battle-hardened and you see the world through a different lens. It's important to be there for those young guys if they want to bounce ideas off you."
It is a feeling that Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have attempted to instil in England's Test team over the last 12 months. "They've created a very good environment for the group to operate in," Root said. "And I don't just mean that it's relaxed and we're all having a nice time.
"I mean that the conversations the guys are having now are, I think, a lot more relevant to the success we're having, and the guys are going out there and playing really smart cricket because of the way we're talking to one another.
"That's a really exciting place to be. When you look at our batting group, the majority is in their mid-twenties - or even early twenties - and have got their Test careers right ahead of them. It's an exciting time to play in that team. It makes me smile just thinking about what is coming around the corner."
Up next for Root is a first Ashes series without the England captaincy since 2015. He felt the pressures of the job over the last three series, never more so than during the Covid-affected tour in 2021-22, and is looking forward to the opportunity to "just go and play" this summer.
"I look back at the last [2019] one we had in the UK and it just didn't feel like it really ran for us," he said. "Although we drew the series, Jofra [Archer] wasn't available for the first game. Woody [Mark Wood] was out for the series. Jimmy [Anderson] bowled four overs. We were potentially half an hour away from winning at Lord's, 20 minutes away from saving the game at Old Trafford
"But that's the exciting part of an Ashes series: how close they seem to go, especially in the UK, and how it can draw some of the best Test cricket out of the two teams. Everyone seems to be building up nicely towards it. It's a place that we've probably not been for a while when it comes to these series.
"We are fully aware Australia are a very good team - you don't get to a World Test Championship final without being good in all conditions. It should make for great cricket, and that's what you want to play in. You want to play in those brilliant Test matches, and to be the one there at the end, not out, having won the game for your team-mates."
Root had an unusual record against Australia across his three series as captain, making a dozen half-centuries in 15 Tests without converting any of them into hundreds. He comes into this summer's series off the back of four centuries and four fifties since returning to the ranks, and with clarity over how he fits into an ultra-attacking batting line-up.
In New Zealand earlier this year, Root spoke about trying to "find out what my role is within this team" before hitting 248 runs for once out in the second Test, in Wellington. He believed that his comments were "misconstrued slightly" but has clearly taken confidence from his performances in that game.
"I feel I've always had a good understanding of how I want to play," he said. "How I want to do that alongside the guys at the other end is the thing that sometimes I was probably getting a little bit carried away with. After that first Test in New Zealand, I worked it out; in the second innings, the only person that was going to get me out was myself, and I did.
"Then I played nicely again in the second Test. Of course, that doesn't guarantee you anything when you move into a new summer or a new game, but clearly it's nice to have that internal feeling of understanding of how you're going to operate, and confidence within your own ability and where you sit within the group."
The morning after our interview, Root caught up with Harry Brook over coffee before Royals' game against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Jaipur. Root made his IPL debut that night; Brook was relegated to the bench, after a string of low scores following his unbeaten hundred against Kolkata Knight Riders.
"I know him very well from watching him grow up at Yorkshire," Root said, "and I think this experience will be really good for him. He's obviously had an incredible year. Within a short space of time, he's had quite a lot to take in and absorb. He's probably had five years' worth of experiences in 12 months.
"But he's got the right mentality and mindset to be able to handle that. Although he might not come across as the most eloquent guy that you'll speak to, he is a very smart man when it comes to cricket. He has a very good understanding of the game, especially for someone of his age."
Root's advice to Brook? "Ultimately, he just has to go and play the game. The ball is the same size, the same weight, and that's the only thing you face. If you can get in that mindset of just playing the ball - not the occasion, not the man - then you'll be absolutely fine."
It is the same principle that will underpin Root's own shift from an Indian spring to an Ashes summer.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98