London Evening Standard
England could not have timed their arrival in South Africa today any better. For although the hosts are still the No1 Test team they are reeling from one of the most chastening defeats in their history.
South Africa’s 3-0 drubbing in India, completed on Monday, was their first overseas Test series loss since 2006. It was Hashim Amla’s first series defeat as Test captain and the country’s worst batting performance since 1912. By contrast, although England also lost their autumn Test series against Pakistan, they came close to winning one match and ended the tour on a high, taking the one-day series and the T20s.
I ask Joe Root whether this has given England a psychological advantage to help them win the four-Test series, which starts on Boxing Day.
I expect England’s vice-captain to respond warily but he says with confidence: “We are more than capable of doing it if we play our best. We will have to play some really strong cricket but we are in a good place as a team. It’s definitely something that’s achievable with the players we have. The way the game’s gone over the last couple of years, home sides win but it would be good to buck the trend and it is absolutely possible for us to do that in South Africa.”
Root, joint top of the Test batting rankings with Australia’s Steve Smith, knows that England will have to do what India did: neutralise South Africa’s two main batsmen, Amla and AB De Villiers. And, in the case of the former, this may have a personal edge. At the start of the Ashes series this summer, Australia opener David Warner gave his side of the story of why he punched Root in a Birmingham bar in June 2013, claiming he felt the Englishman was mocking the bearded Amla by wearing a green and gold wig on his chin.
Root has always denied this but could it be an issue when he meets Amla? “I didn’t do anything like this in the first place. I have no issue with Hashim at all. I haven’t actually seen Hashim since this resurfaced. I’m quite looking forward to seeing him. If I get the chance, it would be lovely to sit down, have a chat and pick his brains because he’s one of the best batsmen in the world.”
The calm measured tone in which Root defuses this potential controversy shows how far the 24-year-old has come since his Test debut three years ago. Few cricketers have crammed so much in over such a short time. Dropped by England in the final Test of the 2013-14 Ashes Down Under, he was man of the series in this summer’s clash of the old rivals.
He says he will never tire of the fans shouting R-O-O-O-O-O-T as they did at Trent Bridge when his 130 ensured England regained the urn. Yet when Root heard the crowd his immediate thought was that he was being booed. Root’s reaction made this a long-running joke in the England dressing room. Now, says Root, hearing the cry is “almost like being fed energy”.
Our meeting in a London hotel underlines Root’s status. He is surrounded by copies of his autobiography which deals mainly with the Ashes triumph. Publicity people surround him and his agent, Neil Fairbrother, keeps a close eye on us as we speak.
Nothing emphasises Root’s maturity more than the way he handles the Kevin Pietersen question. Pietersen was at the non-striking end as Root walked out to bat for his Test debut in Nagpur in 2012. “He’s a fantastic cricketer and, throughout that tour, he was great at helping me develop as a player. I really enjoyed working alongside him.”
And this, emphasises Root, was a happy England dressing room then and so it remains. “It’s a great environment to be in, very relaxed and fun and a nice place to play in.”
So why did Pietersen suggest the opposite in his book, claims which led to the South African-born player being exiled by England? “You’ll have to ask him that,” says Root. “He’s not going to come back so it’s pointless having that conversation. He’s had a good winter away in the Ram Slam T20 [in South Africa] and I hope he finishes his career on a high in domestic cricket because it would be a shame to see him wither away.”
The way Root deals with the Pietersen issue indicates he is already learning the language captains use. Like a potential leader and, in stark contrast to Pietersen, he is eager to emphasise that England are a collective, not a one-man band. So when I suggest that, with Ian Bell dropped, he is now the main England batsman, Root quickly says: “I wouldn’t say that. Of course we will miss Belly’s experience because that’s invaluable. But we all know international cricket is a results business and he hasn’t come up with the runs of late. We’ve got some very talented players who will be looking forward to taking on the South Africa attack.”
Then he emphasises that to single him out as England’s main batsman is “a bit harsh on Alastair Cook who is the leading run scorer in Test cricket this year”.
And while Root does not like being described as an ‘FEC’ (future England captain), he has clearly given the role much thought. “Captaincy is something you can’t really practise, you have to learn on the job and Cookie’s done that really well. He’s probably grown into the captaincy the more he’s done it and he’s going from strength to strength. Over the last couple of years, he’s obviously taken a lot on board, made the most of everything that he’s gone through and struggled with.”
Root has also developed a great rapport with the current England management. “It’s a great set-up. Andrew Strauss [director of cricket] has been very honest with the players. He has told them what he expects of them and what they should expect from him. Trevor Bayliss [coach] is very relaxed and he and [assistant] Paul Farbrace work very well together. They bounce off each other really well. It’s a really good place to work at the minute.”