WHAT makes for a great player in any sport? Natural talent; yes.
Character; yes. Hard work; yes – usually anyway. Luck; undoubtedly, for bad luck, in the form of illness, injury or mismanagement may disrupt any career and prevent a player from fulfilling his obvious potential. Don Bradman is recognised as cricket’s greatest batsman. When he first played for Australia in 1928-9 , there were many who thought Archie Jackson the better prospect. Jackson, born here in Scotland, in Rutherglen, was a year younger than Bradman and scored a brilliant hundred in his first Test against England. But he contracted tuberculosis and died four years later, aged only 23.
Sometimes too a player of great gifts loses his way. Mark Ramprakash was the finest English batsman of his generation, scoring more than a hundred first-class centuries. But his overall Test record is poor, poorer than that of much less gifted contemporaries. Nobody, Ramprakash himself included, knows just what went wrong. An over-intense temperament? Perhaps. The victim of poor management and inconsistent selection? Almost certainly. The fact remains that only two of his 114 centuries were scored in Test matches, and his Test average is just a little more than half his first-class one of 53.
Now England have a new twinkling star in young Joe Root. Will he become the greatest batsman of his generation? There is, on the face of it, no reason why he shouldn’t. He looks the part. The natural talent is obvious. He appears to have character and a calm temperament. Whereas in Test cricket, Ramprakash seemed on edge, Root is calm. He looks as if he is enjoying himself. The word is that he works hard. So all he needs is for fortune to favour him.
The Australians will look to give him a going-over, seeking for technical flaws. It will be a time of trial. Though lots of people are – stupidly? – ready to write off this Australian team, they have a good pace attack. Anyone can get out early in an innings, but Root’s technique is good. Even before he played for England, he was being highly praised by Geoff Boycott and by the batting coach of the England Lions, Graham Thorpe. Now that one has seen him in action, one understands why.
First, he is completely orthodox. On TV Charles Colville spoke of him as a product of the modern game, one of the T20 generation, and indeed at Headingley this week he played a couple of reverse sweeps. But, setting that stroke aside, the way he plays could have been taken straight from a hundred years-old coaching manual, modelled on Jack Hobbs. Like most of the great batsman he is essentially a back-foot player who lets the ball come on to the bat and plays it late. There were occasions at Headingley when he moved back across his stumps and played so late that you thought he had been beaten, only to see a flick of the wrists sending the ball scudding away.
More than a century ago Ranji said a batsman should “play back or drive”. This is a counsel of perfection. The forward defensive stroke, which Root plays well because his bat comes down straight, is also necessary, even though Neville Cardus, with pardonable exaggeration, said he had never seen Bradman play forward defensively. But it is the ability to play late off the back foot which is the mark of almost all the greats, and Joe Root has it.
Some day, perhaps soon, he will open for England. There is what might be called an apostolic succession of great Yorkshire openers: Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton, Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Vaughan. Root is the next in line, and the one he most resembles is Hutton. One cricket scribe, who used to ghost Hutton’s newspaper columns, told me the other day that when he saw Root batting so calmly in his first Test innings in India last winter, he thought he was watching Len reincarnated. From what I have read of the young pre-war Hutton, before his arm injury compelled him to cut the hook shot out of his repertory, Root bats in the same way – and hooks very well too.
Another feature of Root’s play is his eye for a run. Inability to push the ball into space for a single has been a failing of English batsmen for years. It’s why they so often get bogged down. At Headingley the running between the wickets of Root and his fellow Yorkie, Jonny Bairstow, another youngster of rich, but very different, talent, was a joy to watch. Their century stand was distinguished by their speed off the mark and their eagerness to turn singles into twos and twos into threes. If their luck holds the pair should score lots of runs for England together – not so many, alas, for Yorkshire because, sadly, the crowded international calendar deprives counties of their best players most of the time. I only hope they continue to do so with the infectious enjoyment that was so evident last Saturday.