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The right kind of hunger

Joe Root takes John Hotten through his match-winning 254 against Pakistan in 2016

Jon Hotten
It is July 22, 2016. Joe Root wakes up in his room at Manchester's Lowry Hotel with a plan. His Test summer has been OK, not great. He is being talked about as one of the best batsmen in the world across all formats - with Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and A. B. de Villiers. He was one of the stars of England's Ashes win in 2015, then played superbly in the disparate conditions of the UAE and South Africa.
He's dipped a little in the cold early summer against Sri Lanka, though, making nought, 80, three and four. And, in the First Test against Pakistan at Lord's, he fell to two poorly executed shots, mis-hitting a slog-sweep off Yasir Shah on 48, then fluffing a pull off Rahat Ali on nine. Days later, he's still upset by the first innings, because he and Alastair Cook had put on over a hundred and made the wicket look flat. When he got out, England stumbled. He is frustrated, too, because he knows he was in form but not scoring, which to him is a greater sin than not being in form in the first place.
After Lord's, England's batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, asks if he's happy with how he's playing. Root says yes, he feels generally fine. Ramprakash says he might still be in one-day mode. He disagrees. One of the things he prides himself on is the ability to adjust between formats. Over the next couple of days, Ramprakash's words nag at him, one thought recurring in particular: he had swept the ball before he fell to Yasir for four. The next was tossed up outside off, and he thought: "There's fifty." It was the wrong kind of hunger.
For a professional batsman, getting out is an endless reality. But the dismissals that hurt Root most are the ones such as the first innings at Lord's, mini-nightmares that lead to damage. Afterwards, the team spend a long time talking about Yasir. He bowled well for his ten wickets, sure, but England had played him badly, let him settle, thrown their wickets away with cross-bat shots.
"Sometimes you need to get it wrong to get it right," says Root. "I remember I had real clarity in the lead-up to that week at Old Trafford. Ramps had got this dog-stick and I faced a lot of that, getting my angles right for their left-armers; over the wicket, round, reverse swing, new ball… It was about being a little bit more greedy, and a little bit more stubborn."
In the Old Trafford nets he works on alignment, in readiness for Pakistan's three left-arm seamers: Mohammad Amir, quick and skiddy, with late swing and a nasty low bouncer; Wahab Riaz, the enforcer, full or short, with brute pace and reverse swing; Rahat Ali, somewhere in between. He works and works with Ramps and his dog-stick, works on getting greedy, getting stubborn…
"In the UAE against them I got caught behind three times. There was a big thing made of my mode of dismissals against left-arm seamers, so I knew how they'd try to get me out. I practised leaving the ball, and moved further across my stumps to make sure I knew exactly where off stump was. If the ball was outside my right eye, I felt comfortable leaving it. If it was going to swing in, I was aligned to hit back down the ground. You're almost taking lbw out of the game. I had a strange feeling, you don't get it very often. My movement was right, feet in sync. I had confidence. My weight felt well balanced."
He's never been a great sleeper, and sometimes he'll lie in bed before a game playing the bowling in his head. But when he wakes at the Lowry he feels the rush. He knows what it is: he can't wait for this game. Cook wins a toss - about time, after losing four in a row to Misbah-ul-Haq. Root gets his gear ready, finds a seat, has a cup of tea. His supplier had given him a couple of nice new bats for Lord's, and he later realised he hadn't taped the handles up as he usually does - another sign he hadn't prepared as well as he thought.
"I like a bat that has consistency through the whole blade, not just the sweet spot. I'm not good enough to hit the sweet spot every time…"
Cook and Alex Hales walk out. Amir opens from the Pavilion End, Rahat from the Brian Statham End. Root watches from the balcony, but not too hard: if you watch like you're already out in the middle, it can drain you, amplify your doubts and make the bowlers look better than they are. After 30 minutes, Hales is bowled by Amir. From the balcony it looks unplayable, a rapid, full inswinger that comes back wickedly late to hit off stump. But as Root gathers his kit to make his way down, he sees the replay - good though the delivery was, Hales has played the wrong line. It settles him a little.
"When you're watching telly it looks like it's moving more than it is. You mustn't talk yourself out of scoring runs, or feel like it's difficult, or think about all this stuff when you're going out there. The best way I can describe it is that it's like learning to drive a car. The first time it seems everything's happening at once, but the more you do it, the more naturally it comes. You don't think. The ideal place when you walk out is just: right, watch the ball."
He takes a middle-and-off guard. Rahat is bowling. The first delivery is a little short, and he goes back and defends. The second is wide, and he watches it go past, a positive leave. The third is full. He sees it early and moves silkily towards it, making contact just outside off stump. It's back past Rahat before he's finished his follow-through. A couple of overs later he pumps Amir down the ground too: another great contact. The short one comes - Amir's arm suddenly twice as quick - and he can't duck or sway, so he takes it on the shoulder. It hurts, but the memory of being hit in the same place by Mitchell Johnson flashes through his head. No comparison: that one had felt like being knifed. He had tried to smile, but the pain was too much; all he could manage was an unconvincing grimace. This one sharpens him up, brings him clarity.
"Five runs at a time, try to get a partnership going. That's all I practise, regardless of the situation. Make it feel like it's the two of you playing the delivery, not just the guy on strike. Cooky likes to get on with his own thing, and it helped to see the way he was playing and leaving."
Yasir comes on for the over before drinks. Watch the ball. Right forward or right back. Play straight. Aim to beat mid-off and mid-on with the drive, and punch the shorter ones either side of cover or midwicket. The second ball of his second over is short, and Root gets back and cuts it in front of square, smooth and controlled.
"Yasir bowls a lot out the front of his hand. It feels as if drift is his biggest asset in the first innings, trying to keep the stumps and lbw in play. He's just got ten wickets. You want to nullify that. Make him get you out with a ball that does turn big."
They bat comfortably until lunch. Just before the interval, Yasir bowls two bad balls - one short, one a full toss - and Root hits both for four. Hungry yet patient, patient and stubborn.
"I struggle to eat at lunch when I'm batting. I usually try to get a protein shake or some sort of liquid down. Get something on board, a banana, protein bar, try and calm down…"
The afternoon session is about the labour of batting. Playing Misbah's Pakistan has a rhythm unique in international cricket. They tend to sit in during quiet periods, set sweepers on both sides, and wait for something to happen. He tells himself not to fall for it, because when a wicket goes they're all over you in an instant. He passes 50, but feels the weight of his lull. In the time he goes from 53 to 66, Cook goes from 55 to 97. Cooky never outscores him. Root nails the slog-sweep off Shah - his first since Lord's - to move to 70. Cook gives him a look that says: "Rein it in a bit."
"Prior to that game, if Yasir went outside off stump, I tried to hit it over wide mid-on. So I spent a lot of time on a hard sweep in front of square along the floor - try and take the top edge out of it. Anything on leg stump or just outside I'd lap - try to beat the man at 45 on either side."
Cook's hundred comes with a clip for two off Amir. It's his 29th in Tests, level with Bradman. Not bad, that, thinks Root. He edges into the eighties, feels the tension gather inside him. He wills himself to let the runs come, just five more, then another five… They inch towards tea until, with three deliveries left, Cook gets a fast, full ball from Amir that keeps low and scuttles through him. After the interval, Pakistan sense an opening. Root moves to 97, then Rahat gets James Vince.
"I felt Yasir had bowled a lot of overs and I wanted to face him as I got towards a hundred because I might get a tired delivery, even though he's got that ball that can make you feel unsettled. I managed to get one between midwicket and mid-on. It's a strange feeling when you get to a hundred, because there's that excitement, but the overriding feeling is relief. When I got them as a kid, it was all excitement, all happy, but it changes slightly. It's different now."
The hard part is staying patient, staying hungry. A hundred's not enough to win this match; a hundred's never enough for the big players. He feels the air go out of Pakistan again. They're waiting for the second new ball. Yasir gets a warning for running on the pitch. He's bowled 30 overs for 110, no wickets and only five maidens. Gary Ballance falls just before the close, but by stumps Root has scored 141, batted for six hours and a minute, faced 246 deliveries and, he thinks, played and missed just twice.
"I found it very draining. They spent a lot of time with men back, so we got a lot of singles. It was slow. You have to grit your teeth and be more stubborn than they are, but it was quite exhausting. There was a real element of satisfaction, though. When you wake up in the morning, there's nothing better than that enjoyable sort of tiredness and stiffness."
A new day, and Chris Woakes starts batting like a god, smashing it everywhere, so Root gives him the strike, props on his bat and enjoys the show. By the time he's eased his way to 150, Woakes has raced from two to 33. Then Yasir bowls Root a big, drifting leg-break from wide on the crease, and draws a stunted little poke that takes the edge and brushes Younis Khan's fingertips at slip.
"That was the first real error I'd made - the first one off Yasir I thought I got wrong. It was a nice way of getting grounded again. I told myself to make it count, drive the point home, bring the declaration into it. Up to lunch, I may have got 20 or 30. After that, Stokes came in, and it's inevitable that something's going to happen one way or the other."
Yasir goes round the wicket and bowls a defensive line, trying to bore Root into a mistake. He and Stokes drag the field around with singles, getting into Misbah's head. Eventually, Misbah has to stop them playing drop-and-run; he takes a man out of backward point to plug square leg. The gap appears. Root is on 197.
"The safest shot for me, bizarrely, was the reverse sweep. It just happened. I remember one of the analysts had said that, from my last ten or so reverse sweeps, I'd scored 25 runs and been out six times…"
Yasir floats another towards his pads, and instinct takes over: the bat handle flips in his hands, he drops his knee and swings like a lefty. For the briefest of seconds Root - and only Root - knows how perfectly he's hit it, the contact an instant longer on the bat face, the ball fizzing through Misbah's gap to the rope. Then the world knows it too. He hears one thing: "Roooooot!"
"I felt I'd had a really solid plan for everything they threw at me - I had a couple of boundary options and a solid defence. Stokes got out right after, and then me and Jonny Bairstow scored rapidly. I wanted to get through to the declaration, really do my job."
England have a mountain of runs. His previous Test best - 200 not out against Sri Lanka at Lord's in 2014 - is a speck in the rear-view mirror. Wahab begins the 151st over of an innings that, for Pakistan, has become a nightmare. Bairstow takes a single. The next ball is in the slot, but Root gets under it like a Sunday hacker, and watches Mohammad Hafeez gallop in and hold on. It's over at last. He bangs his bat into the ground.
"I'd started to think that 300 wasn't miles away. We were scoring quickly and we were only halfway through the second day. The ball was there. I just mis-hit the shot. After, it was a blur really. All of the lads were saying well played, but you're still in the middle of a Test match. I don't think it even hits you once the game's won - maybe it's a long time later, when you're driving along and you think, yeah, you know, that was a special day."

Jon Hotten is the author of The Meaning of Cricket.