The Last Word: Careful nurturing plants Root on the firmest of ground
On a weekend we are invited to exalt personality, here is a man with character
There he was yesterday, as the shadows lengthened, in the appointed position at silly point.
Joe Root knows the rules, no less than the squadron novice deployed as tail-end Charlie. Even in this perilous initiation, however, he loomed over proceedings with monumental impassivity. All menace was transposed between batsman and fielder, one cowering in the personal dusk of the other. Trespassing on the very margin of the shaved pitch, Root appeared to suggest his kneecaps must be every bit as adamantine as his mind.
Though playing his very first match, the young Yorkshireman has immediately seemed to extend the tendrils of his nature into the deepest substrata of Test cricket. His debut innings was so preternaturally composed that a contrasting and flagrant impetuosity seems warranted in saluting him here. Others will sagely counsel against inverting some pyramid of hysterical expectation upon a single visit to the crease. But if Kevin Pietersen reckoned their respective 73s to have been compiled on the toughest Test wicket of his career, then it hardly discourages a neon instinct that The Boy’s Got It.
That’s old news, of course, in the inner circles of the game. Few Englishmen have made a Test debut with their technical and psychological proficiency so forensically examined by those who deemed him ready. Ultimately, however, you only need take a single look at his bearing. If nothing else, on a weekend when we are invited to indulge and exalt sporting “personality” in its most feckless, cultish sense, here is a young man who sooner exudes “character”.
At 21, naturally, he can still paint himself any way he likes, from the palette of undiluted colours that have so far sketched only a cherubic outline. Maybe he will eventually be represented as a diva, like KP, or a wag, like Graeme Swann. Maybe the gilded youth will be oxidised by exposure to the fickle affections of media and public. For now, however, he seems auspiciously committed to matching his physical wits to fortitude of spirit. And that synthesis lends him such terrific placidity that it would be disappointing if Root ever exchanged self-possession for self-regard.
This level-headedness obtains a literal quality as he reconciles the incongruities of his build. He is tall, but not bulky; his gait almost suggests gawkiness, but at the crease he glides adroitly back and forth. Though many great batsmen, and footballers, have shared a neatness and nimbleness with Fred Astaire, the fulcrum remains the same for the big guys: a still head. If Root celebrates his first Christmas as a Test cricketer as heir to the same messianic burden once shouldered by Michael Vaughan or Mike Atherton, then our first debt is to those who decided to blood him in such a momentous Test. At some point, perhaps, they may in turn decide that Root himself might benefit from the sort of challenge issued to Messrs Patel, Bairstow and Morgan, in the abrupt promotion of a youth whose tour was presumed to have perished in a shoot-out with Nick Compton to replace Andrew Strauss as opener. Those he leap-frogged deserve sympathy, in varying degrees – and admiration, too, if you saw Jonny Bairstow warmly embrace his Yorkshire compatriot after Root was presented his cap. But for those of us brought up on the panic and prejudice of selectors, in the bad old days, it is still more edifying to know that decisions are nowadays made with both insight and nerve.
Where experiment once exposed selectors as groping blindly in a lucky dip, they now seem to tread a careful path between complacency and continuity. They have not been squeamish about changing a winning formula. And, where they could at times barely see out of the Long Room, they now try to take the long view. You have every confidence, for instance, that someone like Ben Stokes will only be integrated when it makes organic sense. By going with Root this time, equally, the selectors no longer have all their Ashes eggs in Compton’s basket.
To see a batsman named Compton so dour, and one named Root so natural, is once again to surmise that their passports must have been mixed up. As it was, when Root was issued with his tour blazer, it turned out to have been tailored several sizes too large. Already, however, there seems little doubt that he is a bespoke fit for his calling.
Whom the gods wish to destroy, of course, they first call promising. They do not lack vacuous agents, in those of us blearily cheered against the reluctant dawn of the English December. Doubtless we should all leave the lad alone now, to complete himself as a cricketer by painful increments. To do otherwise, indeed, is to urge him precisely towards those shallow rituals of personality that infect this weekend, and modern sport in general – not to mention modern society. Happily, all the signs seem to be that he may be far too rooted a character for that.
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