Joe Root: Exploring new vistas of batsmanship: Sport, in many ways, is about practice and perspiration, commitment and perseverance in pursuit of sustained excellence. It is a progressive march, where a sportsman matures through fluctuations in form and attains his peak performance.
The sure-footed middle-order batsman from Sheffield, Joe Root, is one of those cricketers who is chiselling his way to greatness with a winning combination of talent and hard work. Root has been able to imbue the virtues of temperament, adaptability and technique in his game to become the fulcrum of England’s batting line-up.
A few days ago when England’s cricketers were thrown straight from the quieter climes back home into the cauldron of the Wankhede stadium in a World T20 encounter, Root had to draw upon all those attributes to propel his side to a tension-filled two-wicket win.
As England started to lose their way after a bright start, Root quickly attired to the responsibility of chasing down an imposing target. He seemed to intuitively map out South Africa’s well-thought out field placements as he ran them ragged.
As soon as JP Duminy bowled long hops, Root pounced on it by cracking short-arm pulls. Chris Morris then landed it on a shorter length, only for Root to show his expertise by slightly angling the face of the bat to delay the stroke and slice it over the deep backward point fence.
With small feints of his hips and knees, Root then frustrated Morris by using the reverse lap before moving into top gear with a flurry of crunching boundaries. By the time Root was dismissed, he had rattled off a 44-ball 83 and taken his side to touching distance of winning the match. Root had left his thumbprint on the big stage.
Root is a 21st century cricketer who plays with a sense of freedom in the shorter formats of the game. However, he has adapted to the abridged versions without compromising on his sound technique. No wonder, that Root was the pivot around whom rest of the batsmen thrived earlier this year on a trampoline Wanderers track.
It was not just about the Test hundred that he crafted, but the way he scored those runs which was impressive. He had that commanding presence at the crease. With an upright stance, bat-up, he was seldom hurried into playing a shot. When he met the ball to defend, it felt as if he had a cushion in his hand. It capsulises the point that he was playing late and with soft hands.
Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and the tearaway Hardus Viljoen tested him with short deliveries. Root, though, was a man undaunted by the pace battery. He drew upon all the visual cues he could get by gauging the path of the ball to rock back and cut and pull them to the boundary boards. When the bouncer got big on him, he jerked out of the way.
Morne Morkel, the spearhead of the attack, then looked to test Root’s balance by hitting a fuller length. With a still head and his eyes staring down at the ball, he paused for a moment for the willow to come gently down on the leather and pierce the gap with drives. That day, he twinned sound technique with aptitude and panache.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Root though. After starting his Test career with a well-constructed fifty against India in Nagpur and a couple of hundreds, Root’s flaws were brutally exposed by Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson in the Ashes 2013-14.
With his bat-up, Root was struggling to shift his weight forward. On tracks with pace and bounce, where quick footwork is essential to succeed, Root’s tendency to hang back in the crease, resulted in him edging deliveries to the slip cordon. He could only muster 192 runs and at a disappointing average of 27.42. To make matters worse, he was dropped for the final Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
Just to analyse his weakness further, when a batsman already has his bat held up high, it can be difficult for the willow as well as the hands to move in cohesion and get into an optimal position. It leads to jabbing at deliveries outside off, especially on tracks with good carry.
However, the credit has to go to Root for resurrecting his career after going through a lean Patch. In the midst of getting dropped for the final Test at the SCG, he found enough reserves of resilience to succeed. It was virtually the rebirth of Root’s Test career.
The desperation in his eyes was also tempered with equanimity as he recalibrated his game. Root still plays with that ‘bat-pumping-high’ method, but most of the times, when the pacers hit a fuller length, he pushes his back foot, aiming to get forward just enough to play with assured weight transfers.
With the nuts and bolts of his technique fixed, he has composed 2,451 runs at 68.08 since the Ashes 2013-14. His career average now stands at an eye-popping 54.93. The wellspring of Test centuries has coincided with six hundreds in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), too.
Even if we trace his early career, it reveals us about his tremendous work ethic. By the age of 18, he had aggregated 2,000 runs for Yorkshire schools and at an average of over 50. In the Academy Arch Trophy held in Dubai in 2007, he ended up with 276 runs.
Instead of resting on his laurels, Root continued to stretch the limits of possible. In the harsh winter back home in Sheffield, he faced thousands of throw-downs from various angles in the nets. There were also occasions when his head would fall over, leading to him being trapped in front. Under the watchful eyes of Yorkshire’s the then batting coach Kevin Sharp and former England captain Michael Vaughan, though, he started to blossom.
Root’s elevation from junior cricket to the national team was certainly swift. In fact, the coach of England Lions, Graham Thorpe, was so impressed by Root that he recommended him to the senior side and he was picked for the tour of India in 2012-13. Once he shored up England’s batting line-up with a fifty to help them recover from a wobble in his very first Test in Nagpur, it was clear that he would soon become one of the bedrocks of the senior team.
In the last four decades, with the possible exception of Ian Botham, England have produced mainly a string of very good cricketers. However, in Root, England have a cricketer whose consistency and maturity belies his age, and his easy-going charm, endears himself to fans and team-mates. To put it simply, he is on the cusp of reaching elevated levels of the game’s roll of honour.