When Wayne Rooney decided his playing days were over and assumed a full-time position as Derby County manager, an old discussion was resuscitated then argued to death once more.
Rooney’s was a career that failed to live up to the expectations placed upon him when he broke onto the scene as a world-beater aged 17. A boy vaunted to become a man on the grandest stages while leading England to glory, destined to lift every gong worth lifting in the club game. To many, that did not quite play out.
This despite five league titles, a Champions League winner’s medal, breaking England’s goalscoring record and generally being lauded as a generational talent, unplayable at his peak. Yet, at some point, minds were made up, not to be shifted. Even as he was giving so much, he could have given more.
As Joe Root approaches his 100th Test, you can’t help but see the similarities. He burst on the scene as cricket’s great white hope. Well before his debut at the end of 2012, we got word of this kid batsman, a Vaughan prototype, who was going to be a bedrock of the batting, captain England, break records and do all the things we associate with greatness
And yet, having just turned 30 last month, his story has a tinge of unfulfillment affixed to it. Maybe because of the lack of centuries? A dearth of standout moments? It’s hard to say. But something has been not as some of us wanted. He is not quite in the bracket of his peers Kohli, Smith and Williamson.
Numbers and memories inciting ecstasy are things that pull us towards any athlete. Even in a sport that prides itself on deep considerations, we're a sucker for the epics of Kevin Pietersen and Ben Stokes. For some, Root's continued, understated brilliance hasn’t quite pushed the same buttons.
Yet he has ticked all the necessary boxes. Since his debut in Nagpur, absorbing 229 deliveries and scoring 73 in a series-clinching draw against India, he has only missed two of England’s 102 Tests. He has centuries in every position he’s batted in more than once, which covers a range from opening to number six, with the majority at the business end of three and four. The 8,249 runs have him fourth on the run-scoring charts for Englishman, and none of those with 8,000 and above have averaged higher than him. During the 186 in the first innings of the previous Test, against Sri Lanka, he overtook David Gower, Pietersen and Geoffrey Boycott. He has been an Ashes winner and, off the back of that debut performance, part of a side that triumphed in India for the first time since 1984/85.
The five overseas wins in a row he has marshalled are a first in over a century. He could wake up on the morning of the first Test against India and call it quits and still be considered for English cricket's Mount Rushmore.
Like Rooney, this was always a path he knew he was going to tread, even if his public interactions have been of ‘taking it one match at a time’. As a kid, he yearned to be great at this very specific pursuit. After one day of secondary school he returned home in bits after losing the King Ecgbert’s Sports Personality of the Year title to a girl. Only later was he able to accept that he would not be the last person to fall short of a certain Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Unlike Rooney, his story is far from over. Thirties are the decade when batsmen rubber-stamp their legacies. And to have done all he has already, across a period of misfit England teams he has roused into a functional, exciting unit puts him in clear headspace for the future. With as many as five years to go, there are plenty of chapters still to be written.
There is another element to Root and wunderkinds of his like that is worth going delving into. And that, simply, is growing up in the open where the public claim a piece of you. Cricket is littered with shiny new things who went about adjusting to that in their own way, and perhaps the best comparison is offered by Root's predecessor, Alastair Cook.
Cook did what he could to be his own man, even when he was everyone else’s, and did it very successfully. Beyond the 12,472 runs that has him perched as the most prolific Englishman was a judgement unrivalled for avoiding awkward situations and conversations, leaving them well alone like good length deliveries outside off stump. Few had a sterner will or thicker skin.
Root, though, for all his merits of perseverance has one trait that has probably held him back from the ruthlessness craved of him. He cares. A lot. Maybe it’s because of what has become of the world around him and how he has been unable to shut himself off from that as Cook did. But over the last couple of years in particular, he has felt an urge to expand his awareness.
That’s particularly notable when he was asked on Wednesday how the journey to 100 Tests has scoped him as a person.
“Having been exposed to things very early, you learn to learn on the job, if that makes sense. You gather all those experiences together and try to use them in your favour. At times, I got it wrong and had to re-think things. But it is all part and parcel of the journey and it has been a really fun one and I have really enjoyed it. Hopefully, it is the start of something, not the end.”
Most instructive, though, is assessing how he has dealt with assuming the role of statesman so early. Not just the captaincy, taken on at 26 - the second youngest in charge of a nation at the time. But as “the one” who would bring generations together, a totem for what English cricket is, was and would be when he finally calls it quits.
Because as much as his remit was scoring runs and winning Tests for his country, his career is about being a representative for the country and cricket outright. And while those fifties were unconverted and some matches went away from him in the field, it is a sense of duty he has never lost. Whether it was telling Shannon Gabriel there is nothing wrong with being gay, wanting to kneel together with Jason Holder last summer or simply realising there is more to his career and stock in the game. Something which has never mattered more to an England captain than right now.
“More than anything, understanding that responsibility is really important,” said Root when asked to assess his worth over the last nine years. “As Test cricketers, as players at the top of the game, we have a really good opportunity to make changes for the better in whatever it is. We’re very aware that we’re role models and it is very important we use that in a positive way and try to make cricket as good as it can be while we have the opportunity to have a big effect on it.
“I think as a player that is something you want to embrace. You want the next guy to come in and the next generation to be inspired. For the kids to look at the game and think, ‘I want to be a part of that, I want to play cricket because it looks so much fun. It looks a really good sport to be a part of. I think as a player and captain, in particular, you want to try to lead the way in those opportunities and that image for the sport.”
As fate would have it, his 100th cap will be the first time the majority of the country will get to see the best iteration of “his” team. The return of Test to Channel Four after almost 16 years brings an opportunity to showcase an exciting group and a captain who has only blessed free-to-air television once, during 2019’s 50-over World Cup Final.
This India series and the Ashes at the end of the year will determine a lot of Root’s legacy. The average is still the wrong side of 50, the centuries still a tad light, but with plenty of opportunities at the crease to bump up those numbers, earn more legacy credits and maybe even cajole the cynics.
Joe Root the person, though, is as level as he has ever been. He arrived into the game merely to have fun and has done his utmost to refer back to that sense of awe during tough moments. The growth ever since has been one of embracing responsibility beyond sporting parameters. Not just of that kid, but those he now wants to represent. Whether 99 caps or 100, that is something worthy of high praise.
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