Difficult decision has given Sheffield’s Joe Root a chance of overtaking Sachin Tendulkar and being greatest ever
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It was a wobble that showed a flicker of vulnerability that was in contrast to the imperious way he’d gone about his business in the previous few hours. In skipping towards Tim Southee and punching the ball through midwicket, he brought up a milestone reached by only 13 legends of the game.
In scoring his 10,000th Test run, in registering his 26th hundred in the format, he took his seat at the very, very top table of the game. He has every right to the claim that he is the greatest sportsperson to have been reared in this region.
Root’s vulnerability when discussing the pain of a captaincy doomed earlier this year, of how that pain had begun to poison his family life, of how he felt it was damaging his personal health, was nothing new.
This is a 31-year-old who has long since been brave enough to show his human side, to tackle questions on emotion and stress and the wounds sport can pick and and claw and corrode at.
And it is that head-on bravery that can help him attack the most improbable of tallies, that of Sachin Tendulkar’s all-time Test total of 15,921 runs.
It’s a long way off and it would require the sort of world class form we’ve seen from him over the last year or two to continue almost without pause.
It’s not long ago cricket pundits were mulling over the merits of another Englishman in chasing that ultimate. Sir Alastair Cook – who finished on 12,472 runs when he retired in 2018 – is the only other from these shores to have passed 10,000 Test runs and for some time looked well-set to give it a red hot crack.
But Cook burnt himself out. He retired two English summers after passing the monster milestone tired and emotional, a shell of the confident run beast he had been on the road to becoming England’s very best.
Four years on from his retirement from international, Cook’s first class average may have dipped a touch but many would still count him as the best English opening batsman out there. Had he been able to continue, Tendulkar may well have been in sight as the Essex left-hander approaches a true retirement age. He’s only 37 after all.
Root’s chances of playing Test cricket until he is 37 and beyond? It’s no doubt greater for having shaken off the weight of the captaincy; the media calls, the external sponsorship responsibilities, the heavy load of endless criticism.
His batting never dipped when results were at their worst – in fact, it reached new levels – and in doing what he did in a fourth innings run chase on Saturday and Sunday, it was the perfect way for the Sheffield Collegiate CC product to draw a line and skip into a new era with a smile on his face.
“It started to really take a bad toll on my own personal health,” Root told Sky Sports after the game. “I couldn’t leave it at the ground any more, it was coming home. It wasn’t fair on my family, on people close to me, and it wasn’t fair on myself either. I had thrown everything at it.
“I think I was unaware of how much it [the captaincy] was grabbing hold of me, and I just needed to make the decision. I knew it was the right thing to do. I felt like a big weight had been lifted and I immediately felt a lot better.
“It’s time for a new phase in my career. And one I’m very much looking forward to, seeing one of my best mates now take this team forward.”
That is the sort of decision Cook perhaps wasn’t able to make early enough, when the mud was being slung and the weight of pressure pushing further and further on his shoulders. It is not talent or commitment that cost Cook a shot at the biggest number of them all. It certainly wasn’t age. It was burn out.
Will Root be thinking about that Tendulkar tally? Probably not too much. It’s a long, long way off and as it stands there’s not much to be gained from looking too far ahead.
His limited involvement in England’s white ball cricket means he can focus solely on his Test form and gives him the sort of switch-off time few England greats before him have been able to enjoy. Root values time with his wife Carrie and two children; time away from the white ball offers that.
As happened with Cook before him, a public-facing Joe Root became grey, flat and monotone as the captaincy of the England Test side began to crush any semblance of enthusiasm.
That wobble in his voice on the Lord’s outfield showed how much English cricket, his career and indeed the loving eyes of his watching family means to him. It offered a glimpse into the soul of a cricketer that still feels.
It is a kinder schedule, an awareness of self-care and that flicker of emotion that suggests he can go past Cook, past 13 others and on to immortality.
Whatever happens, Sheffield should be very proud of one of the very greatest cricketers of all-time – both on and off the field.