The captaincy was turning me into a zombie. I wasn’t there for my kids
In his first major interview since stepping down as England skipper, Joe Root reveals the emotional toll it took on his life and family
By OLIVER HOLT Joe Root is a global ambassador for New Balance. See their cricket range at newbalance.co.uk.
dmg media (UK)
THERE is something melancholy about a cricket club in winter, something forgotten, something that smells of yesterday. But as Joe Root strolls across the damp outfield at Abbeydale Sports Club on a dank Sheffield afternoon and gazes across at the skeleton of an old sight screen, he twirls a bat in his hand and starts to talk about T20 and Bazball and his favourite innings and all of the intricacies and joys of the game he loves and suddenly it doesn’t feel like winter any more. As Root prepares to depart for England’s first Test tour of Pakistan for 17 years, it is good to see him looking so happy, so untroubled again, freed from the pressures and the responsibilities of the England Test captaincy, which had started to eat away at him and which he relinquished last spring, paving the way for his friend and vice-captain, Ben Stokes, to succeed him as skipper. He does not use the word ‘liberated’ to describe how he feels as he walks across that outfield where it all began for him as a player for Sheffield Collegiate but, when I use it, he nods emphatically. The captaincy was, above all, an honour for Root but it had become a burden, too. ‘I just felt like a bit of a zombie almost,’ he says, as he thinks back to how the pressure and the criticism had begun to affect his home life. As he walks, Root looks down at the bat and feels its heft and talks about technique. In the company of a lesser sportsman, perhaps, that might pall after a while but this is the best Test batsman in the world and he is trying to explain a little of how he has got to this point, a little of how he had an epiphany when he devoted himself to analysing his game and practising and practising to improve it during the pandemic. It is like listening to an artist telling you why he painted over a part of his masterpiece. IT is an idiot’s guide, of course, because he is talking to an ignoramus but that does not stop it being a glimpse of the decision-making processes of the player many already consider to be the greatest English batsman of all time. As he prepares to tour Pakistan, he is drawing inexorably closer to Alastair Cook’s record of 12,472 Test runs. ‘The nirvana for batting,’ Root, 31, says, ‘is to have nothing in your mind. You can just watch the ball and play. People speak about feeling like you’re watching yourself from out of your body when you are at the crease but I have never had that. It’s a bit of a myth. But that is what you’re trying to search for. ‘The closest I have got to it is by being really clear about my technique and having confidence in it and being at peace with certain modes of dismissal. If you are trying to do things a certain way, stick with it. You are going to make the odd mistake, you might get the odd bad decision and bowlers are allowed to bowl well: they are world class. But if they get it wrong, you know you’re absolutely ready to punish them and throw the game back at them. ‘With Covid and that initial phase of it where we were all stuck at home, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could become a better player, what areas of my game needed tightening up, what did I need to do more of? I have always done things through feel and I have been very fortunate to work with some top coaches and team-mates. Bell, Prior, Trott, Pietersen, Cook; if you went to those guys, they would help you out. KP, in particular, was fantastic with me. So I analysed my game a lot during the pandemic and I actually changed the way I set up against seam bowling. I went more front on and I felt like I was a lot more secure. I didn’t feel as vulnerable for lbw. I felt like I was covering off stump better. I was working on getting into my innings. ‘But I was getting stuck and I couldn’t score. So I was more secure but I had no fluency, I had no rhythm, I couldn’t put pressure back on the opposition. ‘So I changed back. But if I had not made that initial change, I wouldn’t have realised why the way I had batted for such a long period of time worked and why it was so efficient. By getting it wrong and changing it for a phase, it enabled me to flourish. I had a better understanding of why I don’t leave many balls in the channel and try to score off them and why, every now and again, I might nick off early trying to get it through backward point and third man. ‘It also helped me understand that’s where I score a lot of runs off good balls and get bowlers to bowl in an area which suits me a bit more off the back of that. It gave me real clarity on how I wanted to go and bat and that is one less thing to think about under pressure.’ Pressure had become his constant companion by the time England returned from a disappointing West Indies tour at the end of March. He has never gone into detail about why he chose to surrender the captaincy after five years in charge and a record number of wins — and losses — but now, after seven months of enjoying a new role in the side as a senior batsman, the subject holds no demons. It is hard to think of a leading sportsman who is as modest. Root has never been tempted by the idea of living somewhere faster paced. He had a year in Leeds when he was younger but that was enough. He moved back to Sheffield. The day before, he says, he, his wife, Carrie, and their two young children drove the short trip to the Peak District and went for a walk. The kids splashed in puddles and fed the ducks. That was what he knew he was in danger of losing when the pressure started closing in on him. When he realised just how much the captaincy was affecting his family life, he hated it. ‘The captaincy was starting to take a toll on me,’ Root says. ‘It was getting to the point where I wasn’t really present at home. ‘The limited time I did get to spend with family, which should be enjoyed and treasured, I wasn’t able to do that. I wasn’t really there. I came to realise that that had been the case for a little while. ‘I was there but there were times when I was thinking about something I couldn’t control or something that hadn’t happened previously. You go in on yourself. We would still do what we would normally do as a family but I would not be listening. I just felt like a bit of a zombie almost. I could see it frustrating the kids because I wasn’t properly playing with them or I was talking to Carrie and I would zone out. I could start seeing it have an impact on me as a person. You want to bring your personality to the role, not bring the role to your personality. It was reversing into something slightly unhealthy. ‘It was a very difficult decision because it is such a fantastic role to get the honour to do and I loved doing it. I was also trying to make the right decision not just for myself but most importantly for what the team required at that point. It was a real opportunity for a fresh start with Rob Key coming in as the new managing director of England men’s cricket and a new coach coming in, for us to go and do things very differently. ‘I didn’t feel like I had the energy or the right outlook on things to be able to do that properly. As hard as it was to give up the captaincy, as soon as I had done it, I did feel so much better for it and have done ever since. It is a period of my career that I will always fondly look back on and think I am very proud of what we achieved as a side and proud of the fact I got to do it for such a long period of time and I will always be grateful for the support I got during that period. I am really looking forward to looking at the game slightly differently. As captain, players find it difficult to come and talk to you and be vulnerable with you and I have always wanted to help and offer insight or advice. But when you are associated with selection or in a position of leadership, guys find it difficult. I have really enjoyed guys being a bit more open with me this summer and being able to offer a bit of my experience and hopefully help them.’ Rather than burdening Root with a feeling of loss, giving up the captaincy has filled him with a sense of possibility. He is thinking, for instance, about entering the auction for the world’s leading domestic T20 competition, the Indian Premier League, for the first time next month. ‘I have no thoughts or feelings of retirement or slowing down or playing fewer formats,’ Root says. ‘If anything, I feel a little bit more freedom with my time. I always used to get rested for the T20s and I feel like I got alienated from the format because I had not played enough of it. You can feel like you are getting left behind a little bit. Now, the next couple of years, might be a good time to explore playing a little bit more of that format and see how far I can take that side of my game.’ HE adds: ‘That is especially valid because of how we are trying to play now as a Test team. Looking at the game through a T20 lens, will that benefit my Test cricket? With a 50-over World Cup next year, there are areas of my game that can benefit from playing more short-form cricket. When am I going to play some white-ball cricket if I don’t go out and search it out domestically? ‘I would certainly debate going into the IPL draw quite seriously and hope to get exposure in that tournament. It would be great to get involved in the continuous enormity of each game and how much it means.’ He says he carries few regrets from his time as England captain but he does admit to a nagging feeling he should have stood his ground more strongly over selection and tactics towards the end of his time in charge. ‘The stereotypical view of the captain is not necessarily always what you are going to get from the best leaders,’ he says. ‘My view of a good leader is someone who can be very authentic and consistent in themselves and in what you are trying to achieve as a team and bring people with them and bring people together. Keep things very clear under pressure and help create an environment where you are not the only leader within that space. It is impossible to do it all on your own. ‘Maybe towards the back end of my captaincy, I did become a little bit cautious because of the way the team had been set up to play during that phase. If you look at the start of my captaincy, the majority of it was on the slightly more aggressive side of things. That’s the cricket I enjoy playing the most. ‘Now I’ve had time to sit back and look at it, that’s where as a team we’ll have most success, when we’re more aggressive as a team. I just think it suits the mindset of the English game at the moment to be slightly more forward thinking, more aggressive. ‘One of the things I wish I could have done slightly differently was stand by my beliefs a little bit firmer instead of going with the thought process of others around me or getting sucked into a view of what the general feel is for how we want to play. I would like to have been more aggressive towards the back end of my captaincy. ‘If I could pass on advice to a future captain who comes into the job with the same lack of experience I had, I would say more than anything if at any stage you are questioning the way something is, or the team that you have, then be really firm with what you want and make sure you go out there and you have got full belief in what you want to achieve with the players you want to play with and fight as hard as you possibly can for that. ‘You have been given the opportunity to lead this team, lead it yourself, make sure you are doing things the way you believe is the right way. ‘I’m not envious of the way Ben is doing things because I am a part of it and I get a chance to influence it. We did some of the same things when I took over but then we hit a roadblock when we got battered in Australia and everything got tested and questioned. This team will not question how we go about things. This time, we will make sure we stick to it and we will make sure we are better at it.’