They probably shouldn’t be, but ultimately all England Test captains are eventually judged on their Ashes records. The retrospective conversation, and God knows cricket is infatuated with picking over the past, tends to airbrush extraneous world events and pin its weighted history on these series alone. In the curious and present day case of Joe Root though, his Ashes lineage doesn’t tend to feel so much a captaincy record to be judged by at all, but more a sequence of events that act as a coming of age film we have simply witnessed.
For most of us, the tragic-comic passage through our twenties happens in a series of private little dinks, the slow dissembling of what we imagined our lives would entail and the concurrent re-building of a starker, more accurate expectation. For those aged beyond that decade, with any loaded memory of the difficulties that it presented, it’s worth sparing the odd thought for Root, for whom it’s been carried out in a sequence of highly critiqued, very public events that nonetheless have mirrored the irrespectively unavoidable growing pains.
Arriving on the Test circuit in his early twenties with a gait that betrayed innate confidence and meekness in the same breath, everything seemed remarkably easy for a young Root. You sensed that he couldn’t believe he was playing Test cricket with and against people who probably until then, to his mind, only existed on the television, but more so, how serenely natural to him it all felt. There was so much smiling. Beaten by a ball. Big smile. Bowler has a dig. Big smile. It was rarely a forced one either. It was a wise smile exclusive to the youth, loaded with a perspective that cricket, whilst being the best thing in the world was, really, in the grand schemes of things, nothing to get too worked up about either.
He scored 180 in 2013 in his second effort against the Australians at Lords. I can still recall the feeling in the ground then; the collective sense of, not so much awe or relief, but a simple given that we had found one that we would watch as the stretch of our own lives expanded alongside. Indeed, a given he has been since. It was a beautifully simple innings, with a languid and correct simplicity, every rhythm of his movement feeling lain with age old roots and modern, somehow good and pure.
His inheritance of the England captaincy, strangely only in it’s third year, still to this day the sole realistic candidate for the job, has tended to complicate matters greatly. “You go in with your eyes open that it’s a 24-hour job, and that’s what it ends up being”, says Andrew Strauss in The Edge, his face wincing half shut in even the memory of the pressure. It has always felt like those two opposing virtues, an innate goodness and wide-eyed ease, and the demands and responsibilities as laid bare by every captain who’s ever done it, are forever gnawing away at each other in Root. His captaincy at times has felt not so much of any cricketing questions, but a personal balancing act of how you keep one without losing the other.
So, to the little coming of age dinks, dished out in public. In the Ashes tour previous to this, it did at times like the older Root was lugging the England squad around based entirely on the younger Root’s batting nous. The tour, a gruelling and wildly exposing winter trip around Australia, was punctuated with a failed batting salvo at Adelaide. In a desperate plight to save the day-night Test and with it, realistically the series, Root was faced with a Australian slip cordon at the height of their pre-sandpaper goading. In the pink half-light, he stood resolute, pointing his bat at the slip cordon as he survived a day to keep England still in the Test match. It would have been one of the most iconic Ashes moments had he not nicked off first thing the next morning and England systematically folded thereafter. This is cricket. This is probably growing up too.
He ended the series, the only real anchor in a batting unit with untold issues, so unwell that, not out at close of play, he had to be taken to hospital sick, on no sleep, only to come back to the ground the next morning to try and save a Test match in Sydney for nothing but prides sake. Facing Nathan Lyon, Root smashed the ball square, hitting the man at bat pad flush on the helmet.
His immediate response was not to catch a breath, or take guard, or re-focus, but to reach out his hands and ask if they were ok. It was a very small moment, forgotten immediately, but struck as something more at the heart of his struggle. Here he was, genuinely very ill, holding up a batting unit himself, a no doubt highly stressful situation to find himself in, but with an instinct to firstly make sure that he hadn’t hurt someone. It was therein, you couldn’t help but feel, that the contradictions in the job that he has been asked to do and the person he is might lie.
Thursday’s innings at the Oval; a 57 that could have been so much more despite being given three lives by haphazard Australian catching, was a sort of microcosm for the whole thing. He walked out markedly spritely, fresh with lightness in his trigger movements at the crease. He smiled a lot. He cut freely and drove straight down the ground in bright sunlight. As the innings evolved, Root almost developed a limp between balls, talking to himself, resembling the intensity with which Nasser Hussain would hold the role of leader, visibly beating himself up. It was a witnessing of a kind of layered Root, the one we first met and the one we know now, the leader desperate not to let anyone down whilst always trying to re-access the ease he once had.
When he was eventually actually dismissed, a ball from Pat Cummins jarringly close to that fatal first ball dismissal at Old Trafford, he had to drag himself off. The way he walks himself off these days is akin to witnessing someone experience a disappointment so personal to them that you sense it's slightly invasive to look at all.
This series he’s ended up on his knees. He’s punched his bat. He’s cursed himself. It leaves you with a sense that more than anything else, maybe this man that played such a role in the World Cup campaign and then was immediately asked to captain a side in the Ashes just might need a break? I think we all probably do. It’s not only Root who has aged beyond the natural process this summer. It’s just all been a lot, hasn’t it?
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