He laughed, joked and smiled as he remembered his own days as an excitable, cricket-mad youngster dreaming of following in the footsteps of his own hero, Michael Vaughan.
But as Joe Root, the England Test captain, strode along the same turf at Sheffield Collegiate’s Abbeydale Park sports club greeted by the sight of over 150 children, there was litle doubt. He was the main man now.
Root, who was enrolled alongside younger brother Billy on the Vaughan Academy at Abbeydale by father Matt, a Collegiate player, and mum Helen, a self-confessed ‘cricket widow’, has since followed his idol’s path almost to the letter - Collegiate, Yorkshire, England - and topped it off by becoming the No.1 batsman in the world, and later England captain.
But, to a whole generation of youngsters, Vaughan is yesterday’s man and Root is their new hero. So they flocked in numbers to the launch of the Root Academy, a venture headed up by Matt which will run frequent camps for youngsters all over the United Kingdom and even offer intense coaching sessions at the Desert Springs resort in Almeria, Spain.
And they weren’t disappointed. Joined by Matt and Helen, plus fiance Carrie and baby son Alfie [brother Billy was on duty with Nottinghamshire at Headingley] Root gave valuable tips to youngsters at various stations on a cricketing ‘circuit’ on the Abbeydale outfield.
Some listened intently. Others just gazed, open-mouthed and barely believing that the England captain was speaking to them. Afterwards, an entertaining Q&A session gave them the chance to learn more about their hero. “And if anyone hasn’t yet got anything signed,” Root announced on the microphone, “I’ll gladly do so.” The words were barely out of his mouth when a youngster toddled towards him, cap in hand. A day he’ll never forget.
“It’s a little bit surreal to be back here I guess,” Root said after dragging himself away from the adoring kids to chat to the assembled media, in a side room next to the main pavilion at Abbeydale.
“I spent so many hours down here working on my game and I remember coming on Michael’s academy when that launched way back when.
“I was one of the young kids who came through that, did a lot of drills very similar to this and it’s just about giving opportunities to young guys, getting as many people into the sport as possible and for people to find that enjoyment factor about playing cricket, whether it be five or six year old kids, or some slightly older in the nets working on technique and developing their games.
“It’s really good to see so many people interested in the sport. It’s nice to give a little bit back to a game that’s been really good to me.”
In more than one way, too - Root’s myriad endorsements and sponsorships, on top of his ECB central contract, reflect his status as one of cricket’s most marketable stars - but, to those who have known him since his own days playing on the Abbeydale outfield, he is very much the same guy - even if, with Alfie growing up fast, his time is more stretched than ever.
Growing up through the ranks at Collegiate, he attracted the nickname of ‘Future England Captain’ and he became the youngest ever player in Yorkshire’s proud history to be awarded a scholarship, aged just 13.
A breakthrough season, and both a technique and temperament which impressed England coaches greatly, earned him a call-up to the national side and he made a half-century on his debut. The opponents were India and when they make their way to these shores later in the year, they will encounter a very different Root; now established, more mature, now the skipper.
So, what can be expected from Root’s England as they prepare to face Virat Kohli’s India, after a two-Test series against Pakistan?
It’s just about giving opportunities to young guys, getting as many people into the sport as possible and for people to find that enjoyment factor about playing cricket, whether it be five or six year old kids, or some slightly older in the nets working on technique and developing their games. It’s really good to see so many people interested in the sport. It’s nice to give a little bit back to a game that’s been really good to me.Joe Root
“Hopefully some really good results,” Root smiles.
“It’s been a tough winter [losing to Australia and New Zealand], we’re playing at home and in our own conditions we’re a very good side so I expect us to go out there and perform really well.
“We saw a massive step forward in that last Test match at Christchurch and hopefully that’s a sign for us to move from strength to strength, keep improving, keep getting better, and keep moving forward as a team.”
It’s a theme he keeps returning to; improvement. As a player, as a captain, as a person. And, glancing over his shoulder as the number of kids waiting for an autograph rises steadily, in others, too.
“There’s a few things about the academy from our point of view; first and foremost we want kids to come down and enjoy the sport for what it is, have a really good time, interact with other kids and learn some new skills and develop their awareness of the game.
“Then once the kids come down a little bit more regularly and they get involved a little bit more, we don’t want people to come away from this as clones. We want to maximise their individuality, and feel like they can go and express themselves and who knows?
“Maybe one day we can find ourselves a Steve Smith out of it, or a Lasith Malinga. We need to make sure that at no point anyone feels restricted in what they can do, it’s about maximising all the things that they can bring to the game. Another big thing for us is making sure that you get used to enjoying other people’s success and instilling that as a real philosophy of the academy.
“If you can get used to knowing that this game revolves around a team and you’re playing alongside others and working together to reach that end goal of a win by doing your individual skill, if that can be instilled early then that’s a really good thing for them growing up.”
“Those things are really strong points that we want to get across and hopefully over time that will show through,” Root added.
“We’ve got some great facilities and some great things in place. We’ve got PitchVision so kids can look at their performance and compare it to other players, some of the best players in the world, and we’ve got this little catapults which pop the balls up which means the coaches can work really closely, 1 on 1 with individual players and you can get really stuck into it, concentrate on the skill itself.
“There’s a lot of things we try and do slightly differently, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel by any means, but most of all we want to spread the enjoyment of the sport and give back to what’s been such a great sport to us all.”
Leaning forward in his chair, a black New Balance tracksuit hanging off his gangly frame, Root still maintains a boyish appearance which has followed him throughout his career, although he seems to have finally cracked the secret to growing facial hair, but his intense stare when cricket is brought up in conversation leaves nobody in any doubt; cricket isn’t child’s play for the cherubic captain.
“I probably am a cricket ‘badger’ actually,” he concedes. “That term gets thrown around and I probably do fit the bill. I love the sport, I’ll be at home and I’ll flick on the TV and most of the time I’ll have the cricket on.
“It must wind the missus up quite a lot whenever Corrie is on it gets clicked over to the IPL or a one-dayer. That’s pretty much what the academy is about, I love coming down and watching the kids enjoying the sport.
“Something I’ve always loved is being able to jump in on a Thursday or Friday night nets at the club and seeing the people enjoying the game like I did as a kid and still do now. It’s a real treat to provide something where that’s made possible, and hopefully it grows from strength to strength.
“Will I follow Vaughany’s route into the media? Well, I can’t see me doing Strictly. But as a kid growing up, he was my idol. Being from the same club I saw his path going from Sheffield Collegiate to playing for Yorkshire to playing for England.
“As a young kid growing up seeing that first hand, it made it more achievable for me, it made it something that someone form this club has gone onto play for England, why can’t I do the same thing?
“To have him as a role model all the way through was a really good driver for me. To have him now to be able to chat to about the game, about captaincy is really nice to have that option. I’m really grateful for everything he’s done for me and for this club and for the game.”
Once more, the baton has been passed over and now, it’s Root’s turn.
n The Root Academy runs every Friday evening at Abbeydale Sports Club, S17 3LJ. For more information, visit www.therootacademy.co.uk.