Joe Root : The new Alistair Cook ? Or is it too early to call?

England v Australia: 2nd Investec Ashes Test - Day Four

He looks to me like a lad who has absolutely everything. He just looks to be the complete article. The only thing he needs now is experience to turn from a very good batsman into a brilliant one. It doesn’t appear to me that he has any obvious flaw in either his technique or his temperament. I think he is spectacular.”

Graeme Fowler, former England Batsman on Joe Root

Young cricketers are a difficult bunch to explain. In the international arena, young blood goes a long way in making or breaking a team’s fortunes.

Younger guys are, more often than not, better fielders, more energetic and more determined. That determination of course is for the sole purpose of stamping some sort of authority, to demand a permanent place in the side.

There is, of course, a two sided tale to the point I just made. Young guys do bring a lot to the dressing room, but they aren’t young only because of their age, are they?

Look at Virat Kohli, only 24 years old, but he is over a 100 ODI matches old already. There is some decent experience there. Granted that he did make his debut some 5 years ago, but still 24 is a very tender age nevertheless. Experience makes up a major aspect of the ‘age’ factor – the more experienced you are, the more valuable are you to the team.

The current scenario in world cricket or any other team sport, is the promotion of youth players. The performances of the youth in a team, if praiseworthy, make it much easier for the team to replace the old guard with the new, and thus secure the future of the team in that sport.

Domestic competitions are used as the base for selection and at times the performances in ‘A’ team tours or junior leagues go a long way in making or breaking a young aspirant’s dreams.

Younger players today find more opportunities of getting into the senior team. The emergence of numerous T20 leagues across the world helps them in coming into the picture sooner rather than later, opportunities our predecessors didn’t have. Their performances, if noteworthy, helps them in making that transition to the world stage much smoother.

In this article I will talk about one such young man who worked his way through junior domestic championships to reach the senior team, and it is very likely that this young man is going to be an integral part of his team’s fortunes in the future.

This one ‘young’ man goes by the name of Joe Root. Root, over the past few months, has been grabbing the headlines for almost all the right reasons (the David Warner incident is hopefully, a one-off incident) ever since he made his sparkling Test debut. I put young within inverted commas simply because of his level of maturity. He is, for me, the real life example of ‘old head on young shoulders’.

Joe Root is a young English batsman hailing from Yorkshire. He made his Test debut against India is December last year at Nagpur (as part of my comparison, I’d like to point out that Alistair Cook too made his debut against India in Nagpur as well), a series where England emerged the unlikely winners, and Joe Root the unlikely hero debutante.

In an article sometime back I highlighted that the Ashes, since time immemorial, has had a special ritual, a ritual the world easily recognizes. That ritual is the signaling of a new and upcoming talent, a talent that could, someday, carry the weight of expectation of the whole nation in cricket.

Joe Root is my pick for the hero of the future for England, and at the moment he is living up to all those expectations.

Joe Root was always destined for great things; his junior coaches always praised his ability to concentrate for long periods of time and accumulate runs easily. They said he could very well be the next Boycott, the same man who was praised for his inhumane ability to stay at the crease for long periods of time.

Joe Root’s performances for England and Yorkshire over the past few months have earned him a place in the Ashes side, replacing Nick Compton as an opener. This selection is an achievement in itself, and what is more important for him is the quality interaction he is having with his mentor, Alistair Cook himself. He has earned immense praise from his team-mates and coaches. English legends too have earmarked this young man for greatness.

Jimmy Anderson said this about him recently- “The biggest thing about Joe is that the mental side of the game is easy for him. I’ve never seen someone that young have what you need to be able to perform at that level”. 

Anderson’s show of respect for this young man goes a long way. Anderson started his international career as a mildly popular domestic cricketer, and even though his talent was apparent,the results weren’t coming his way. This only fortified the fact that he was nervous when he was first brought onto the world stage, and it had rattled him. Though Joe Root looks much more used to this new found attention, the national team and its burdens don’t faze this young man.

England v Australia: 2nd Investec Ashes Test - Day Four

For someone as experienced as Jimmy Anderson to say something like that is a testament to Joe Root’s batting. At the very tender age of 22, he has already signaled his arrival in style, conquering quality bowlers when his more illustrious colleagues haven’t been able to.

I began this article with the idea of comparing Joe Root with his English captain, Alistair Cook, and I happened to find this interesting interview where former England legend Graham Gooch praised Root’s ability, while drawing comparisons with Cook.

He said: “Alistair had a similar approach to the game, he was very focused in the mind and knew exactly how to accumulate runs, and anyone who saw Joe in the winter could say the same things about him too”.

Looking at Joe Root’s rise to the English ranks at such an age, it’s only fair that we praise his coaches, firstly for finding a talent like him and secondly, helping and guiding him, thus making him the batsman he is today.

Many say he is the epitome of a modern batsman: old head on very young shoulders and also possessing the ability to invent shots, shots that fetch him runs, and runs which fetch his team wins. Ever since he made his debut against India, he has gone from strength to strength. His talent is obvious, and when he made that magnificent hundred against the Aussies in the previous match, that talent has become more apparent.

Talent needs no introduction when we speak of Joe Root. His ability to mix timing and precision, power and delicate touches makes him a special player. Being able to couple such extreme traits at such a young age makes you a ‘special one’. His technique and determination makes you think this guy is at least a few hundred matches old. While you go on thinking about that, he will slowly notch up another technically sound innings. Makes you wonder how this man is only 22 years old doesn’t it?  

Former captains attribute this success to the academy in place. The English system strives on the ability of their scouts to pick up emerging talent and help it becoming better, with the Test arena as the focal point.

Bringing up a batsman with the longest format in mind not only helps the youngsters’ progression into the national team, but also readies them for the rigors of touring, press interviews, long hours at the crease and many days on the field.

The great thing about the academy system is that the players in the junior leagues meet the seniors constantly and have chats with them about the game, their techniques and how to improve on them.

Ian Bell also showered his praise on Joe Root. He said that Root was a consistent performer on the Lions tour (the domestic version of the longer format). He said Root is also very vocal when it comes to the dressing room, constantly chatting with the seniors, especially Cook, Trott and Bell.

He also talks to Anderson and Swann about playing pace and spin bowling, about playing in different conditions and improving his game. He is constantly involved with the team, and his nature makes it easy for him to play according to the needs of the team, and help him settle down in these new and alien conditions. Not that this new found exposure is making it hard for him; he has shown that adaptability is a key feature of his demeanor.

His technique too has come a long way. Most prolific batsmen say that when it comes to the international arena, a predominantly back-footed player can become very successful.

The other important fact is that unless a player is adept at playing on the front foot, he could end up with a very premature career, because the deliveries that usually get batsmen out are balls that come inward, inducing the LBW or ones that swing away, inducing the edge. Root, however, is showing encouraging signs, playing confidently on both the front and back foot.

It is that confidence that ultimately impresses his older colleagues. The manner in which Root smiles as he goes about his work is admirable, like a man who knows both audacity and humility. This seems to be a trait he shares with his captain.

“He seems to thrive on it (sledging and pressure)”. Especially when he was getting sledged and you see him smiling back.” That, as James Anderson suggests, is what really sets Root apart.

“From a bowler’s point of view that’s the worst reaction you can get,” Anderson says of the toothy grin which shows that the young man is entirely unaffected by the aggressive attentions of his opponents.

The common trait he shares with his captain is that of calmness. Run rate is one thing that never bothers this lad, both him and Cook never seem nervous whilst the pressure accumulates. Cook was a similar man in his younger days, an almost carbon copy if you must.

Cook has only gotten better with time, and the same is expected of Root. To share this trait at such a young age is brilliant, for both him and England. If he performs the way he has been performing, there is no reason to believe why he could be dropped from the side.

England v Australia: 2nd Investec Ashes Test - Day Three
However, there are always two sides to a story, and this is no different. The weight of expectation can weigh down quite heavily on young cricketers. Look at Rohit Sharma; he started his career as a force to be reckoned with: class, talent, temperament – he had them all. But the problem at the time was that he was being compared to legends, and a lot was expected of him at a very young age. That hampered his growth and even today some people believe that he might be India’s largest let down.

It’s a funny thing, comparison. It could go two ways, either the person getting compared to a great strives and works hard at becoming a better player, or he withers under the pressure and is always shadowed by his more accomplished colleague.

Though Joe Root hasn’t shown signs of such vulnerability, it is worth giving it a thought. Not a long time ago, a similar man named Ian Bell was compared to great players, but at a similar age he was removed from the side for under-performing, a trait many many young men share with each other.

The weight of expectation can be too heavy at times, and those times are the actual tests of life. That did lead to him working long hours on his batting, but the sheer pressure of delivery left him wondering whether he could achieve greater things ever again. Now after years of hard work and determination, Bell is the player we know him to be today.

His batting has come along way, and he is England’s best batsman in the Ashes so far. Same can be said about Root. The comparisons between his mentor Cook and him could make him work harder and he may become a batsman feared around the world, or the pressure of performance for a side as ambitious as England could push him into the shadows of the very idol he worships.

What I’m trying to say is never look too far ahead; it could become your undoing. Instead, let’s give this young man the time he deserves. Even though Joe Root seems to have a tryst with destiny someday soon, it is advisable to wait for that tryst, rather than summon it with childlike eagerness.

Though he may seem to be ready to be pushed into the limelight, in my opinion until he is tested in situations that await him in Australia and South Africa, he may well be ill-equipped to face the world.

Let’s wait for him to mature even more, and only then should we start to judge him. For now, let’s just admire his batting and wait for that ‘day’ to arrive.

His style, grit and determination can be compared to legends, and his attitude to living legends, but it is his technique that is like a love letter to the very establishment that makes him what he is today.

That establishment is, of course, Cricket.

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