In 2013, a 22-year-old Joe Root enjoyed a breakout home summer which included crucial hundreds at Headingley and Lord’s. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring.
They call him “The Milkybar Kid”, and in the summer of 2013, the Milkybars were on Joe Root. A maiden Test hundred at Headingley (the first Yorkshireman to achieve the feat at his home ground), an Ashes century at Lord’s, and the first man in England to 1,000 first-class runs – the milestones were sweeter than a slab of white chocolate. It was a season in which the baby-faced Root came of age.
The growing-up process was not confined to the field. Barely had the cheers died down for that landmark in Leeds when Root experienced a less savoury education. In the early hours of a Saturday night out in Birmingham celebrating England’s Champions Trophy victory against Australia, he became involved in a bizarre incident with David Warner. As players from both sides relaxed at the Walkabout bar, Warner took exception to Root’s deployment of a green and gold wig, threw a punch in his direction, and – once the story emerged a few days later – was banned and fined.
“It was unfortunate, but he apologised and we’ve moved on, I think,” says Root phlegmatically. “A lot was made of it, but these things occur.” The shemozzle returned to the spotlight two months later when Warner, in his own good-humoured words, “hooked another one to Rooty” on his comeback in the Third Test at Old Trafford, picking out his nemesis near the square-leg boundary. Thus did Root, who insists he “didn’t say much” when Warner had walked out to bat – Warner begged to differ – administer a form of poetic justice.
It was to Root’s credit that the rumpus neither derailed nor defined his season. If anything, it made him more ravenous for runs. “It didn’t knock me off my stride, and I was adamant I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he says. “In fact, it just made me want to prove to everyone that it hadn’t interrupted me and wasn’t going to. In that Champions Trophy, I got 60-odd in the next game against Sri Lanka.”
Further confirmation came during the Second Ashes Test, at Lord’s in July, when – in only his second game after being promoted to open in place of Nick Compton – he scored 180. Missed on eight on the second evening when he edged Shane Watson between wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and first slip Michael Clarke, Root played regally to become, at 22 years 202 days, England’s youngest centurion in a Lord’s Ashes Test. “That innings was the pinnacle of my season,” he says. “I’d put it above my maiden Test hundred at Headingley.” With typical cheek, it ended with a scoop shot into the hands of third man: this was no self-absorbed progress to a double-hundred.
The runs tailed off, and in Australia he was shunted around the order, making a classy 87 in four and a half hours at Adelaide from No. 3, but generally struggling before being left out at Sydney. But it was from No. 5 that he had fashioned that first Test century, 104 against New Zealand in May, when his fifth-wicket stand of 124 with Yorkshire team-mate Jonny Bairstow helped hurry the game away from the tourists.
On a sunlit Saturday, with the West Stand from which he had watched his earliest cricket roaring his every run, Root appeared to be fulfilling his destiny. In its own way, the innings seemed as preordained as Geoffrey Boycott‘s 100th hundred at Leeds in 1977. “I didn’t feel the weight of the occasion,” says Root, whose angelic exterior masks devilish determination and a dry wit. “If anything, I just enjoyed the fact it was my home ground. A full house at Headingley and a rowdy West Stand is some atmosphere, especially when you’re in the middle of it. It got me going even more.”
Joseph Edward Root, born on December 30, 1990, in Sheffield, seemed fated to be a cricketer. His father, Matt, represented Sheffield Collegiate CC and Nottinghamshire age-group teams and, last autumn, led an MCC side to Cyprus. His grandfather, Don, named after Bradman, also encouraged his love for the sport. This was cemented by frequent games in the back garden with brother Billy, 18 months his junior and a talented batsman. Fraternal rivalry sharpened the competitive edge, and it was fitting that Billy – an MCC Young Cricketer – was twelfth man when Joe made history at Lord’s. “He abused me all day while bringing drinks out,” says Joe, “telling me how slowly I was batting and how he would have smacked it to all parts.”
Joe also played for Sheffield Collegiate – the club that nurtured Michael Vaughan, with whom his style has drawn comparison – and worked his way through the Yorkshire system. A little over three years after his first-team debut in a 40-over match against Essex at Headingley, when “I lost us the game by getting 60-odd off about 90 balls”, Root made his first Test appearance, against India at Nagpur in December 2012. A calm 73 on a soporific pitch told of a temperament beyond his years and, within a month, he would debut in all three international formats, showing particular inventiveness in the 50-over game. When he finally got to bat in a Twenty20 international, against Australia at Southampton in August, he made 90 not out from 49 balls.
It is often said in Yorkshire that a youngster returns from a winter with England half the player he was when he set off – but not this time. If anything, Root looked twice as good, and started the first-class season with 49, 182, 236 and 179, then 40 and 71 in the First Test. It may have been too much to expect him to accrue the 243 he needed in the Headingley Test to become the first man in a generation to 1,000 runs by the end of May. But he got there in only his 12th innings, 70 runs into his Lord’s 180. That Test also provided a reminder that his off-spin was better than occasional. At Trent Bridge, he had removed Ed Cowan; now, in quick succession, he accounted for Clarke and Usman Khawaja.
But it was his precious run-harvesting that most excited observers. “When I was in good form at the start of the season, I just focused on cashing in,” says Root. “That’s the thing I took from the previous winter more than anything, because when you get an opportunity, you can’t just get sixties and seventies, you’ve got to get really big hundreds.” Root says he feels “humbled” to be one of Wisden‘s Five, “particularly when you think of all the great players who’ve been honoured in the past”. Just like the television version, cricket’s Milkybar Kid makes for a fine advertisement.