The name Freddy Adu should be warning enough to those who consider that the art of talent identification and development is straightforward. Signed up by Nike at thirteen and playing major league soccer a year later, those who saw Adu as the next Pele- the two starred in an advert together as if to emphasise the hopes placed on the young boy- probably did not expect him to be still grafting in a minor league football country, as he is today at the Philadelphia Union, in America.
You never quite know how well the long years of practice, training and dreaming will stand up when the moment comes. No matter how much support given to a young player on the way up, and then at the top, there is always a space that parents, coaches, trainers, physicians and psychologists cannot penetrate; a domain for which the player himself, and only himself, is responsible. With that uncertainty comes a delicious tension for those watching, but a horrible, gnawing feeling for those whose whole lives have been building up to the moment.
For Joe Root, the Yorkshire batsman currently in India, part of the uncertainty is settled. Within the last month he has made his international debut in all three forms of the game. Until Tuesday he had yet to finish on the losing side and on a couple of those occasions he has contributed in a significant way. His 73 on debut in Nagpur, helped England to a competitive first innings total, and his bowling during the first one-day international in Rajkot, helped apply the brakes to an Indian response that was threatening to get out of control.
Early days, for sure, but he knows now that he is good enough and of sound enough temperament to give international cricket a proper go. When asked about the fierce atmosphere in Rajkot, during the first of the one-day games, he described it as ‘absorbing’ and ‘relaxing’ at the same time, and he has clearly revelled in his few opportunities so far.
Root’s progress and immediate success has been taken by some as a vindication of the standards of the county game. A generation ago, it took young England batsmen much longer to adapt to a higher level, whereas more recently the success of Jonathan Trott on debut- a hundred against Australia in 2009- and Alastair Cook- a hundred on debut against India three years before that- are taken as evidence of improved standards of English domestic cricket relative to elsewhere. A debut is thought of not no longer as an insurmountable hurdle to be tackled, rather an opportunity to be grasped.
This may be true enough, but Root’s pathway to the England team is more complex than that. It is often said of batsmen that they are products of their upbringing, so that within an instant it is possible to see from the way he plays whether he has been brought up on the stodgy pitches of Yorkshire, or the concrete beds of Perth (Australia), or the dustbowls of the maidan in Mumbai. Playing the ball late and with soft hands, as a Yorkshireman would reared at Headingley, was a trait liable to stay with you for life- as it did with one of Root’s predecessors, Geoffrey Boycott.
But before his international debut in 1964 against Australia, Boycott’s cricketing experience was limited to those conditions in which he had been brought up and which he knew well. He had not played abroad, and knew little of the kind of challenges he was going to have to learn about during his career. He had to learn about playing spin on dustbowls, and how to cope with the extra bounce in Australia, during international matches. It helped, of course, that there were more games outside of Tests in those days in which to hone those skills.
There are fewer such games now, one reason why a young player’s grounding has to be far more eclectic than it was in Boycott’s day, and why a player such as Root comes to international cricket much better acquainted with a variety of conditions than players of earlier generations. This reflects, too, the reshaped priorities of the ECB, knowing as they do that an upbringing in county cricket- on the bland covered wickets of today- is insufficient to prepare a player properly for the international game.
Until he was seventeen, Root had played most of his games in the North of England, from Abbeydale Park in the North East, to Stanley Park in the North West. His first game at Headingley came in August 2007, just about the time he was picked to play for England u16s, and therefore about the time he presumably came onto the national radar. It was about this time, that his cricketing education started to move away from the narrow boundaries that had so far constrained him.
In December 2008, he played for the Yorkshire Academy in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi against UAE u19s. In October of the following year he was in Bangladesh, learning about the sub-continent, playing in Dhaka, Chittagong and Fatullah against Bangladesh u19s. In January 2010, Root found himself in New Zealand playing in the u19 World Cup. In March of the following three seasons, he went with Yorkshire on their pre-season tour to the Caribbean, playing games on each tour at the Kensington Oval.
By 2012, he was on England’s radar proper, traveling with the Lions to Bangladesh (again) and Sri Lanka, where he played in Dambulla and Colombo. In October, he joined his Yorkshire team-mates in South Africa for the Champions Trophy, playing at Test venues in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. In December he was in India with the main squad, preparing for his Test debut by playing for the Performance Programme in Navi Mumbai. The only main cricketing region he has not had experience of is Australia, where he will go soon enough as captain of the Lions.
All this experience outside of England says nothing of the countless hours spent at Loughborough under the guise of England’s elite player development programme, and the games at home for the Lions against international opposition. Coached, trained, analysed and profiled every inch of the way, it is likely that Root has had as complete a cricketing education (in the fullest sense taking in the technical, physical and mental aspects of the game) as anyone could have had. He is the prototype of what the ECB will hope to achieve with all their young players who progress though their elite player programmes.
Essentially what the ECB have done is remove these promising young players from the bosom of their counties and they have piloted a shadow system consisting of the Performance Squad, the Lions and the u19s, under the umbrella of the Loughborough programme, mirroring everything the senior England squad does. When Andy Flower commented upon Root’s performance following the Yorkshireman’s Test debut, it was telling that he said it reflected well upon the staff at Loughborough, rather than those at Headingley.
Which is not to say that Yorkshire have not played their part. Clearly, through his club, representative honours and to his professional contract, Yorkshire have played a key role. But they have been just one strand in Root’s development.
Where the ECB’s priorities lie can be gauged by following the money: in 2005, they handed back £27m to the counties and spent £10.9m on their England programmes. Last year, in 2011, they handed back £42.6mto the counties- still their biggest outlay- but they spent £31.1m on their England programmes. In six years, the amount afforded Hugh Morris, the Managing Director England cricket, for his England budget (incorporating the England men’s and women’s team, junior teams and the programme at Loughborough) has nearly trebled; the money received by the counties has gone up just 55%. That is a massive shift in priorities.
Root belongs to the first generation to benefit from this realignment, which is designed to ensure that by the time he reached the full England team he was, as near as is possible to be, the finished article. Accepting there will always be disappointments, like Adu, in those designed for excellence, the chances of success must improve. Whilst the money rolls in from television at home and abroad, Root will not be the last to benefit from such a broad cricketing education.