Three years ago, I went to Sheffield to interview Joe Root. It was his first summer as England captain and as he parsed his way through a series of solemn, proportionate answers about New Responsibilities and Exciting Opportunities, I became increasingly fascinated by his demeanour. His posture was nervous and awkward; his gestures self-conscious and uncertain; his words stilted and punctuated by short involuntary intakes of breath. It seemed like Root still was still trying to work out whether the England captaincy was something into which you grow or shrink. Whether it bottles you up or sets you free.
A couple of weeks later, someone in the England camp informed me Root had read my article and was a little put out. Not angry. Not upset. Just a bit surprised, as anyone might be if they’d seen their verbal tics and physical mannerisms deconstructed in creepily forensic detail in a national newspaper. Even so, Root’s reaction struck me as atypical. If this was his response to a largely innocuous slice of cod-psychology, how would he handle the merciless media roastings, the poison-pen campaigns, the barefaced lies to come? The England captaincy, after all, is hardly a job for someone who cares what other people think.
Which, when you break it down, is a pretty appalling notion, isn’t it? This idea that in order to be an effective leader you need to shut your ears to the world. Think of all the dichotomies captaincy throws up – caution v boldness, indecision v stubbornness, sensitivity v emotional detachment – and then consider how the qualities we most revere in leaders are often those we least admire in people. To Root’s credit it is a dichotomy he has always rejected and now he appears to be proving it.
At the turn of the year, with England 1-0 down in South Africa, Root was widely believed to be on borrowed time. Since which point: six Tests, six wins – he missed the recent first-Test defeat against West Indies being on paternity leave – and a side that for the first time feels like Root’s own: holistic, empathetic, fuelled by hard work and loyalty. Which makes it all the more anomalous that one player has remained stubbornly resistant to Root’s inspirational touch: himself.
You’ve already seen the numbers: the anaemic conversion rate, the one century in 18 months. The idea of the “Big Four” in Test batting was always grounded more in myth than reality – ignoring AB de Villiers and Che Pujara at inception, Babar Azam and Marnus Labuschagne now – but, for the record, since ascending to the captaincy in 2017, Root averages 43 in Tests; Kane Williamson 54; Virat Kohli 57, Steve Smith 69.
And really, the broader picture here goes beyond statistics. What is missing is not runs or centuries but joy, expression, basic enjoyment. The young Root was a sheer pleasure to watch: a bouquet of abundant talent, sparkling freshness and life-affirming exuberance. The drives and the dabs, the carefree timing, the cheeky boyish grin: here was a player who seemed to encapsulate the sheer fun of being really good at cricket.
These days the runs still occasionally come, but at some point in the past three years – somewhere in among the countless shifts between No 3 and No 4 like a Radiohead time signature, the technical modifications, the hailstorm collapses, the off-field crises, the sleepless nights – something important has been lost, diluted, dialled down. Somewhere along the way, we turned one of the great modern English batsmen into a pen-pushing middle-manager.
I use the first person because the fault is not entirely Root’s own. It seems patently obvious with hindsight that Root was handed the England captaincy too soon: in his mid-20s, an age when we are still trying to discover who we are and what we want out of life. This is why Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad would have made more sense in the short term.
Yet while being expected to maintain his stratospherically high standards in an era where the three formats were irrevocably breaking apart, Root would now also be asked to turn around an ailing team with a wildly uneven player pool, a hands-off coach, a relentless media and a punishing schedule. Not only that, but as results began to veer wildly he would carry the can for a generation of neglect: the sport’s declining popularity, the inadequacy of the grassroots game as a talent nursery, English cricket’s depressing prioritisation of profit over reach. The only way Root has managed to surf these tides without completely imploding is because he is as exceptional a cricketer as he is a person.
But perhaps it was inevitable that while being a leader and a mentor, an ambassador and an entertainer and a salesman, something had to give. And perhaps it was inevitable that it would be his batting, the one skill that requires not empathy and sensitivity but its polar opposite: the ability to bury yourself, to be an island, to leave behind earthly cares and float off somewhere else entirely.
Perhaps this is the true way of all flesh in the end. Or perhaps this is a peculiarly English disease: this urge to burden and thrash our pristine talents as if they were new cars, to see how much strain they can take before they break (exhibit 2B: Jofra Archer). Whatever he goes on to achieve, Root will be remembered as one of the most significant figures in the modern English game and if there is a sadness there it is that he has done it all in spite of us: a player of such broad shoulders that we made him hold up the sky.