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Joe Root: The Bambi who became England captain

“I want you to challenge me. Can I get the same nets session as you did with Anthony McGrath?” Kevin Sharp, Yorkshire’s batting coach, was startled to hear those words from a 12-year-old Joe Root. It had been an intense session in which he had peppered the professional McGrath with bouncers and he couldn’t wrap his head around the kid’s request.

It was the first time Sharp, who had played a decade alongside Geoffrey Boycott in his 218-first-class match career before moving to coaching, had met Root, who had come with his father to the Headingley stadium. The youngster had secured a scholarship with the youth team of Yorkshire cricket club and as the batting coach of the senior team, Sharp liked to invite the new kids to Headingly to have a genial welcome chat. “It turns out he was on the balcony and watched the entire session with McGrath,” Sharp recalls for this newspaper. He had just finished with McGrath and was meeting the Roots, father and child, at his office.

“During our talk, I remember thinking he seemed very mature for his age. He could have been in 20s for all I knew; such was the kind of clarity. He knew what he wanted from the club, where he wanted to end up. And I was thinking, ‘Kid, if you can bat as well as you can talk, you are going to be something! And then I asked him if he wants to do something now, and that’s when he hit me with that McGrath nets request.”

The exchange between the two is so fresh in Sharp’s memory that it is best played out in the way he narrates it.

“This little puny kid looks at me right in the eye and smiles. I am thinking what’s going on. ‘What do you mean by that? I can’t do that because I will hurt you. I will get sacked if I hurt a 12-year-old boy in the head.’”

Joe smiles again. ‘No, I will be all right’.

“You think so?” ‘Yeah, I do’. ‘Okay, wear all your protective gear because I am coming for you.’ “He waddles in, you know with oversized pads and rest.” Ok, here is the thing: 8-yard pitch. Three slips, a gully. I walk up to him and start staring. I have a grim face as I tell, ‘I am not going to be your friend for the next 15 minutes.’ He nods, smiles.”

“And so, off I went. I throw it fast. He left a few, defended a few and a thought pops in my head, ‘Bounce him. Bounce him’. Another voice goes, ‘are you out of your mind? No, no, he is just a kid’. But the more assured he bats, the other voice wins and I let one rip.

“It was a beauty. It clipped his grill on the helmet and I stared at him. And he smiles and says, ‘that was a good ball, wasn’t it?!’ I knew that moment we got something special. After he leaves, I went to the office and told the director of cricket Ian Dews, ‘I just saw a young chap. He will be batting for Yorkshire.’”

Sharp knew what he was talking about. A teammate of Boycott, he had rubbed shoulders with class and knew one when he saw one. “Well, I drove Boycs’ BMW for a few years with him! He always was a wise cricketer, someone so devoted to the game. As years rolled by, I saw a similar drive in Joe.”

Growing-up problems

“Bambi! That’s what everyone in the club called him.” Root would run into his first big problem when he was around 17. During the winter, he had suddenly shot up in height and it led to unforeseen problems of balance at the crease. A real-life Bambi, the Disney character: a little deer that had a limp in its leg. Sharp laughs at the memory now. Root wasn’t laughing then. He had started to fall over on the front foot and the LBWs began to pile up. “20 times, at least. He was waddling away like little Bambi!”

The two got to work. “We tweaked his stance, the way he held his bat, his alignment – we messed around for nearly two years, I reckon, as he kept shooting up in height. It was a difficult time for him but he stuck with it.” Gradually, life turned a corner. “Setbacks are good in the formative years, I reckon. It makes them more determined, gives them the skill to cope with low phases as an adult.”

The lowest phase would come in the 2013-14 Ashes when Alastair Cook, the captain, called Root over to give the bad news. That he was going to be dropped for the next Test. Root has talked about how he uses Cook’s words as motivation to push himself. Back then, as soon as he reached England at the end of the tour, he dialled up Sharp. “More than any real technical work, I remember reminding him about the good days. What he was good at. What brought him to this space.” The reminder about how the little Bambi had overcome his limp would work.

Like old times

Root always loved a challenge and was always proactive, Sharp says, and he cues up a story from a day in Barbados when Root was about 18.

“I will never forget that day. He came to me with all his gear on and said, “coach, do you have 20 minutes?’ I nod and he goes, ‘Just like the good old days.’ And now he reels out what I told him years back on the first day. ‘8-yard pitch, three slips, a gully and you run in and bounce me on my head!’

The two get into an ‘aggressively-intense’ session. “I hit him four times. I hit him on his head, I hit him on his helmet grill, I hit him on his throat and I also hit him on his box. A few times on his gloves as well. He keeps smiling and when we finished, I say ‘Hit you a few times, didn’t I?’ And Joe says ‘Yeah, you did but you didn’t get me out, did ya?!’”

Joe Root raises his bat after scoring 100 runs during the first Test match between Sri Lanka and England at Galle International Cricket Stadium (Source: PTI)

Promises are meant to be kept

When Root was 14, Sharp remembers a moment that would be replayed a few times in years to come. “I tell him playfully, ‘you won’t forget me, right when you play for England?’ ‘No, I won’t’. ‘Two tickets to Lord’s Test, full hospitality please!’ He smiles and says, ‘Done!’”

Root makes his Test debut in India in December 2012 and is set to play his first Test in England at Lord’s in May 2013. A text comes from Root. “Are you coming to Lord’s? Need to fulfill our agreement.” But Sharp, who had taken up a role as head coach of Worcestshire, couldn’t. “I had to turn him down for the next four years, in fact.” 2017 dawned with the news of the birth of Root’s child Alfie. “I sent him a congratulatory message and he texted right back, ‘Thank you. Are you coming to Lord’s this year?’

“I thought the time had come. I checked my diary. And I text back, ‘It’s England v South Africa. Two tickets. Full hospitality, please!’ And he sends me a ‘thumbs up and done!’”

As it would turn out, Cook resigned from captaincy shortly after, and that Test would also become Root’s first as England captain. “I guess some things are just meant to be. I spent the whole day with his parents at Lord’s. He hit a splendid 180 and I remember drinking lots! That night, me and my wife stayed back in London which meant more drinks. The next morning, I went back with a big headache – the happiest, satisfying headache of my life!” Sharp remembers fondly.

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