Joe Root, for years the boy wonder of English cricket, has just become its leading man. When Alastair Cook stepped down as captain of the international Test team in February, there was no real debate over who should succeed him. The England and Wales Cricket Board took less than a week to confirm 26-year-old Root’s elevation from vice-captain to the top job.
The Yorkshireman is ranked the third best Test batsman currently playing the game and he has compiled a staggering 4,594 runs for his country since first walking to the crease as an international in Nagpur, India in 2012. No other batsman has scored as many runs in Tests during that time.
As a batsman, Root brings consummate timing, a deft touch, improvisation and iron stubbornness – pure Sheffield steel – to the crease. And in the face of fire-breathing fast bowlers he rarely loses his sense of fun, often responding to 90mph bouncers fired at his head with a cheeky grin.
The England captaincy has long seemed to be Root’s destiny. He was picked out from an early age by his teachers as a player who refused to give his wicket away cheaply, one who learned quickly and asked the right questions. Most importantly, he made a lot of runs. Talk of his being captaincy material started early.
This all paved the way for his rapid rise through Yorkshire’s academy and first team, then into the international arena at 22. Over the course of his 53 Test matches he has a stellar average of 52.8, hitting 11 centuries and 27 half centuries along the way. That’s not to mention averaging 49.68 in one-day internationals, with another ten hundreds.
International cricket captaincy can make or break even the best players; it requires strength of will, tactical acumen and strategic thinking, man-management skills and the ability to lead from the front. Coaches and team-mates past and present believe Root has those qualities – as well as the requisite fire in his belly. Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness caught up with Root to talk leadership and find out how he’s preparing for the biggest year in an already glittering career.
It’s been a while now since you were named England’s Test captain. What are your thoughts on the role now? Has it sunk in?
I’ve been playing a lot of white-ball cricket [one-day and Twenty20 matches] and I’ve been focusing on that. I had to make sure the news didn’t detract from my game out there. Then after coming back from the West Indies I made sure I had some downtime before getting stuck into the captaincy.
I’ve kept my eye on the cricket going on around the world which has been very useful and obviously looking at the sides we are coming up against in the next six to 12 months, which includes South Africa, the West Indies and, of course, Australia.
When planning for a tough Test series, as the one against South Africa this summer will be, where do you start?
There are a number of different things, but most importantly I have to make sure my own game is in good order, that I’m doing everything I can in terms of fitness and looking after my batting. That’s where I want to start. Of course, I’ll then be looking at selection and opposition teams, at the challenges we have to overcome if we’re going to beat all those sides.
Your former coach at Yorkshire, Jason Gillespie, said it was the exact right time for you to take on the captaincy. Does it feel like the right time?
I haven’t really thought about it in those terms, to be honest. It has more been about the excitement of being given the opportunity.
What was Alastair Cook like as a captain?
Cooky was fantastic as a leader, the way he went about it all. The respect he had in the dressing room, and continues to have, is testament to what he’s done for this team.
I feel very lucky to have inherited a side that is very talented, pretty settled and in a very good place to kick on and become even better.
What elements of Cook’s captaincy will you take into your own handling of the role?
It has been great to watch him go about the job. He led from the front in the way he played his cricket. He set the example in the gym and in practice. He never asked anything of anyone he wasn’t prepared to do himself, that’s a great trait to have.
Now I’m really excited to see him concentrate on his batting, to see him relax a bit more and just enjoy playing the game. I want to see how many runs he can score, because if he’s at his best we’re going to be in a really good place at the back end of this summer.
Does it help to have the former captain with you on the field or could it prove a hindrance?
I think Cooky will let me get on with it and do it my own way. It’s nice knowing you’ve got that experience around to draw on and I’m very lucky to have him and two very senior bowlers in the side in Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson. Again, I’m sure they’ll let me get on with it.
How would you describe your captaincy style?
It’s hard to say really until I get stuck into it. Previously [in four matches as captain of Yorkshire and England Lions] I’ve tried to go on instinct, to go with what feels right in the moment. You obviously have to plan well, but more than anything you have to react to what the surfaces are telling you, what the conditions are saying and what the opposition are doing.
It’s important that I do what comes naturally and stick to my guns. I don’t want anything forced – I want it to be natural and relaxed. I want the players to express themselves on the field. There will be times to rein it in though, and we may have to do that a little bit more than we have done previously, but I think it’s exciting where we are with our cricket.
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Which captains had the biggest influence on your time in cricket?
The obvious one would be Michael Vaughan. When I was growing up he was England captain, and that series win against Australia in 2005 stands out. I’ve been very fortunate to know him from when I was a young kid as well. He was quite an inspiration, both his captaincy and his batting.
I was fortunate to have a few conversations with him about the captaincy when it was announced and I’m sure we’ll have a few more. He talked me through it, about how you have to learn your trade on the field, and tips for when you are in the thick of it.
Are there international captains you take inspiration from?
[Former New Zealand captain] Brendon McCullum is one – he’s got a fantastic record. As a captain, he always did things to try and disrupt the batsman, like setting funky fields at times. He was possibly a bit too funky but it would always put something in the back of your mind. You would ask yourself “Why is he doing that?” which could detract from your game.
There are plenty of different guys out there who have dealt with things in different ways. I’ve got to find a way that suits me.
How will you work with your new vice-captain Ben Stokes? He’s a fiery character – will he be your enforcer?
If you look at Ben’s career, the more responsibility he is given, the more you get from him. I think it’s a really good way to take his game forward even further than he has over the last 18 months. He’s quite a natural leader and that will complement my slightly more laid-back approach to things. I think it should work really well.
Including you, the top four ranked Test batsmen are captains of their countries. Is that a quirk of fate or does it say something about quality batsmen having the right temperament to captain an international team?
I think it is a slight coincidence. It will be interesting when we come up against each other.
What can you learn from them?
For me it’s good to see that those guys have taken their own games forward after taking on the captaincy; it’s encouraging. I want to do that too.
Taking on the extra burden of the captaincy has affected some players’ games negatively. How will you be able to avoid that pitfall?
It will be a great driver for me wanting to improve. Whenever I return from England to play for Yorkshire, there’s an added responsibility to score runs; as a captain there is the same responsibility. In the past, I’ve tended to respond well to that sort of pressure. It’s an opportunity for me to take my game to the next level.
Will your game change?
It is a great opportunity for me to rein my batting in on occasion, to make sure when I do get set, when I do get to 50, 60, 70 that I push on to those match-winning contributions, rather than just a pretty 80.
How important is fitness for international cricket?
The more you play, the more you realise how important fitness training is, especially with the three different formats and the intensity as high as it is – you have to make sure you put those hard yards in.
Even if it means you are just staying supple, or doing 20 minutes between games. Because of the workload on the field, you might have to take on lighter weights than you would want to in the gym, but you still have to make sure you put the work in. You do those little sessions to make sure you don’t miss any cricket.
Is there anything you work on in particular?
I’ve had a bit of a dodgy back in the past, so I’ve done a lot of stuff around that in my fitness programme. There’s a lot of stretching and making sure I’m nice and loose.
With all this added responsibility, will you be able to keep the more light-hearted, cheekier side to your game?
I would like to think so. At a certain level anyway. Things may change slightly but it’s very important for me to continue to enjoy my cricket, especially as I want the rest of the team to enjoy theirs. You have to have fun – that’s what keeps you at your best, being relaxed when you need to be. It’s so important to enjoy it.
Can you still go for a beer with the opposition after a Test or is that a thing of the past?
It doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to. I think it’s always nice when you’ve played really tough, hard cricket out in the middle and you’re able to spend some time with the opposition and chat things through. We’ll see if that continues. It’s a good way to end a series.
Joe Root’s Advice For Cricket Captains
Your star batsman is in a terrible run. You’re standing at the other end – what do you say to him to get him out of his rut?
Root’s advice: I’d say, “Good luck mate”, then I’d tell him to swing as hard as he can and just try and get to 20 and take it from there.
You’re in the middle with a new guy and can see he’s a bit nervous. How do you settle him down and help get his game going?
Root’s advice: I’d tell him to take a couple of balls and get used to it – don’t worry about scoring straight away. Just relax into it.
You lose three wickets in your first three overs of a Twenty20 match. What do you say to the number five as he goes out to bat?
Root’s advice: “Just play your natural game. You’ll be fine.”
Joe Root is an ambassador for BRUT Sport Style, the new fragrance from men’s grooming brand BRUT