Taha Hashim meets Billy Root, a younger brother carving out his own identity in Wales.
Joe Root didn’t encounter too much trouble on his way to the top. At 12, he was being tipped to open the batting for Yorkshire one day. From there he progressed through the county’s age-group sides, played for England’s developmental teams and earned a first-team debut at 18. At 21, he was playing Test cricket. It’s the standard progression of a child prodigy.
Billy – his younger brother by two years – has a different story altogether, one that’s more Rudy than Root. Released by Yorkshire’s academy, the younger Root was 19 when he headed for Lord’s to become an MCC Young Cricketer. Before, during and after his two years on that scheme, the left-handed batsman grew accustomed to a diet of second XI cricket for various counties, getting a game wherever he could. There were opportunities with the reserve outfits of Leicestershire, Surrey and Worcestershire – just to name a few – but no promises of anything more.
“There are times when you’re travelling around the country, playing for counties that you know are not interested – they just need someone to fill a team sheet,” Billy tells Wisden.com. “You could average 75 and you’re back on the M1 to Lord’s at the groundstaff without being paid, and you’ve helped a team win a game but they’re not bothered. Just the nature of that trialling environment – it can be a very tough one and quite lonely as well.”
But after a long, hard slog that’s taken up most of his twenties, Root finally seems to be settling down as an established county cricketer. Since joining Glamorgan ahead of the 2019 season, he’s hit four first-class hundreds in 20 matches, averaged above 60 in List-A cricket and, most crucially, been given a chance. Last weekend, the 28-year-old visited Headingley and raised his bat against the county where it all began. Finishing unbeaten on 110 in a snow-interrupted draw, the juiciness of the narrative was helped by the presence of his brother, off whose bowling he reached three figures.
“As a young lad, I always wanted to score a hundred at Headingley, albeit for Yorkshire. But now, with how everything’s panned out over the last 10 years it’s amazing to get one for Glamorgan and then super special to get one at Headingley – while big brother’s playing.”
It seems like all Root has ever wanted is to play. After finishing up with the MCC, he went to Leeds Beckett University to study sports management – and make his first-class debut for Leeds/Bradford MCCU – yet he put a halt to his degree when he began to make the transition from second to first-teamer at Nottinghamshire.
“It was a case of, I’m going to be in and around the squad here and there’s probably going to be a two-year deal on the table if I put everything into it. That’s the option I went with and I haven’t looked back since. It turned out to be a pretty good gamble and one I’m happy that I went with.”
Even when Root finally did make the grade at Notts, helping the county to two white-ball titles and promotion in 2017 – and averaging 60.87 across the three formats that year – he wasn’t satisfied with his amount of game time, opting to leave for Glamorgan with a year still left on his contract.
“There were some really good players in that [Notts] team, a lot of internationals. There was a game against Sussex – I scored 130 and we got promoted and I didn’t play the next game. That was just the state of the squad at the time. They couldn’t pick me because of the other guys that were there and despite scoring a hundred, I still wasn’t in contention. That again was another huge learning curve. It hurt, but it also told me that I just want to play and it made that decision [to leave] a bit easier.”
At Glamorgan, Root has become a red-ball regular who can now talk of ambitions that all other county pros harbour too: “You’ve always got to be pushing for those higher honours. I’d be lying if I said playing for England wasn’t a goal.”
It’s a fascinating tale. The younger siblings are usually the ones who stand out, forced to adapt quickly when taking on their elders in the back garden – “In about two out of three cases when a pair of siblings both play the same sport professionally, the younger one goes on to be more successful,” writes Tim Wigmore, co-author of The Best: How Elite Athletes are Made. In this case, it’s a story of the other third.
The gargantuan standing of Joe in English cricket will most likely linger in conversations about Billy for the rest of his career – (after all, it’s the England Test captain’s name that starts off this piece) – but that doesn’t mean he can’t forge a meaningful playing career for himself. In Cardiff, that seems a real possibility.