The year was 2004 and Sheffield Collegiate, one of the more affluent sides on the Sheffield cricket scene, with matching tracksuits, had travelled to face Shiregreen in a Tuesday night, local league U17 game.
One of the home players took to the field in lime green astroturf football boots; one of the visiting youngsters, nicknamed ‘FEC’ or ‘future England captain’, was chided for dropping a catch in pre-game fielding practice.
At U17 level, batsmen had to retire at 50 and Danny Walton, Collegiate’s tall, hard-hitting opener, wasted little time in getting there. Shiregreen’s players, assuming Walton was the FEC, clapped him off and hoped for a little respite as a slip of a batsman rushed out to replace him. The new batsman was barely five-feet tall, looking no older than 10.
“Don’t get carried away,” Shiregreen’s coach warned his players. He’d clearly noticed the looks of confusion.
“This lad’s only 13. But he can play.”
That kid’s name was Joe Root. It turned out that he was the FEC. And boy, could he play.
Root scored 40 runs that day, and plenty have flowed in the 11 years since. He has since established a reputation as one of the brightest young players in world cricket, both in the number of runs he scores - 1,295 in his last 13 Tests, with four tons and an average of 76 - and the manner in which he scores them.
Put simply, Root is the heartbeat of England’s brave new world. It helps that he is probably their best player, on current form, yet it is his attitude which most impresses even the most casual observer.
Last Thursday, England’s new Test vice-captain came to the wicket with his side 30-4 against New Zealand. With England in danger of capitulating, Root instead counter-attacked and put the pressure back on the tourists, playing an innings full of the purpose and vigour which has become a real characteristic of his game.
The almost-ever present cherubic smile was removed temporarily when he nicked off for 98, falling just short of another Lord’s century.
His fifth-wicket stand of 161 with Ben Stokes help lift the Kevin Pietersen-shape shadow which, after losing four wickets in an hour, threatened to engulf the Home of Cricket.
It will no doubt return before long but for the entirety of their stand, Root and Stokes made the English cricketing public look forward, rather than back. Yesterday, Root stroked 84 in England’s second innings and ten minutes after being dismissed he was all smiles, applause and fist-pumps as skipper Alastair Cook reached his century; the team comes first.
England’s new supremo, Andrew Strauss, speaks about a ‘brand of exciting cricket’ and, sometimes, that seems hard to quantify, and even harder to imagine in practice. But when the likes of Root and Stokes get going, it all starts to make a little more sense.
I’ve only got tall recently - at that time I was literally half the size of some of the blokes. I remember getting hit in the ribs when I was on about eight or nine, on my debut and everyone rushed over, quite concerned. The umpire said to me afterwards, ‘If anyone had appealed I would have had to give you out lbw!’Joe Root
Root will - one day soon, one imagines - inherit an England side containing exciting talents like Stokes, Joss Buttler and Moeen Ali and, when pushed, admits he’ll be an aggressive captain. The country’s future looks in safe hands.
The White Rose
Yorkshire haven’t seen a great deal of Root since he made his England debut against India back in 2012, and subsequently became a key fixture in the international side.
He insists he didn’t feel the nerves in Nagpur - “I was so proud to be wearing the England badge and to be representing my country and I didn’t want to ruin that by being nervous; I didn’t want to come off thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I wasn’t so petrified’. I just wanted to enjoy it, and make the most of it, and I tried to do that as much as I could” - but it was a different story when he made his Yorkshire debut, back in September 2009 at Headingley.
On a disappointing day, an inexperienced Yorkshire side was comfortably outplayed and slipped to a seven-wicket defeat.
But Root made a composed 63 after opening the batting, and clearly made a good impression; the opposition was Essex, and Root helped dismiss current England skipper Alastair Cook with a stunning catch off the bowling of James Lee.
“I was really quite petrified then,” Root smiles.
“Once I got out there on the pitch it settled down and it was great, but I was very, very nervous. That, and my debut for the Collegiate first team in 2006, are the only times I’ve really felt that nervous and intimidated by the atmosphere and I never wanted to feel like that when I was playing cricket again.
“That’s how I went out in that first Test and it seemed to come off okay.”
His rapid ascent hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though, and a growth spurt of around six inches in a year caused all manner of problems with his balance at the crease.
“I’ve only got tall recently - at that time I was literally half the size of some of the blokes,” Root remembers, again with a grin. He is remembering his first Yorkshire League game for Collegiate, as a teenager.
“I remember getting hit in the ribs when I was on about eight or nine, and everyone rushed over, quite concerned.
“The umpire said to me afterwards, ‘If anyone had appealed I would have had to give you out lbw!’ I was already digging in - Yorkshire style.”
Dad Matt played alongside his eldest son that day, with younger brother Billy already a fixture in Collegiate’s senior sides. Mum Helen is a self confessed cricket widow and “expert white washer”, while his grandad - and personal taxi service in the early years - was named after Sir Donald Bradman.
He is still known as Sir Don around Abbeydale. Cricket is definitely a family affair for the Roots.
Matt - who holds the personal distinction of having played at Lord’s, for Collegiate, and Twickenham, for Sheffield Tigers, in the same season - tells a classic story of a Collegiate away game at Scarborough, with Joe and Billy having their own fierce battle on the sidelines.
Having batted for hours, Joe finally lost his wicket.
“Then,” Matt remembers, “Joe got Billy out first ball and Billy would not give up the bat.
“Joe chased Billy all over the place and we had to stop our match so that I could go and break up the fight.”
His steely determination and unwavering temperament are nothing new, it seems.
If New Zealand’s bowlers thought it was difficult to get Joe out, they should perhaps have a word with his brother.
With three hundreds already under his belt this season, Billy Root took guard for Collegiate against Doncaster Town last weekend in reasonable nick. He walked off unbeaten on 218, from 177 balls; a near-personal best, just not enough to beat the 219* he made for Collegiate in 2009.
At the other end that day was his dad. The pair put on 305 together, with Matt hitting 112 not out. Matt chuckles proudly at the pair’s run-filled sibling rivalry, and their remarkable habit of scoring double-centuries within days of each other in recent times.
“I don’t think it makes it harder at all being Joe Root’s brother. I think it makes it easier,” Billy says.
“What better source of advice and support than one of the best cricketers in the world?
“I’ve not felt like being Joe’s brother has put any pressure on me. I just try to enjoy my cricket and do well. I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve never felt any additional expectation.”
Billy, a student at Leeds Beckett University, has a summer contract at Nottinghamshire and, as a big-hitting left-handed batsman, could hardly be more different than his brother.
The two remain close off the field, though, and have already shared one for England; Billy was 12th man last July when his elder brother scored his first century at Lord’s, against Australia.
Reports that he spent the whole day bringing out drinks and telling Joe to get on with things are, he insists, greatly exaggerated. Their embrace after the century spoke volumes.
“I’m so proud of what he’s doing,” Billy said.
“It’s hard to put it into words.”
At a typically-stiff-upper-lip ceremony, held in the Lord’s Long Room a week ago, Root was named as the runaway winner of England’s Player of the Year award.
Three ODI hundreds and 1,100 Test runs, at an average of 95, have cemented his position as probably English cricket’s biggest and brightest superstar.
No player - not even Australia’s Steve Smith, who enjoyed a Bradman-like run of form - could touch Root’s average. No-one could beat his record of nine scores of 50+ and only one player on the planet, Pakistan’s Younis Khan, scored more Test runs.
Yet, in a classy acceptance speech, Root acknowledged his difficult time in Australia during England’s 5-0 Ashes whitewash. He was dropped for the final Test in Sydney and worked harder than ever, determined to come back stronger.
“I realised that a lot of the time out there I was trying to work on things I wasn’t too good at, and putting all my energy into that,” he said.
“Rather than spending more time strengthening the stuff I am good at.
“I think I was so desperate to do well that I ended up hindering myself.”
At times in Australia, he appeared shackled and constrained at the crease. Geoff Boycott would have approved. But Root was being strangled.
Now, he approaches Test matches as he does ODIs and T20s - hardly gung-ho, yet bright, busy and positive.
Such simplicity, in a modern-day cricket world of trust issues, reintegration and KP campaigns from Piers Morgan, makes a refreshing change.
Here stands a young man who just loves scoring runs for his country.
The ability to laugh at himself remains, too; he revealed that, after leading Yorkshire to defeat at Middlesex last season, he was nicknamed ‘Craptain’ by his Tykes team-mates.
Away from the cameras and the dictaphones, Root bounds around with a real exuberance, an omnipresent cheeky grin and Woody-from-Toy-Story-style walk. This is a young man well aware of where he’s come from. And if there can surely now be no doubt about where he’s heading.
Oh, and that game against Collegiate? Shiregreen lost. Billy came out and whacked us around the park, and Joe got yours truly out with a rank long hop.
Yep, the boy can play alright.