England's exuberant No. 80
Joe Root is England's 80th Test captain. That is a big number, even over 140 years. For a time, England captains were swapped like cigarette cards - four in the summer of 1988, three in the summer of 1966, to pick a couple of vaudevillian examples, and on both occasions West Indies were the cause and created the effect. These days English selectors stick longer to their man. Partly this is because the job has been stripped back to allow team management a more relevant share of the responsibility, and partly it is because the captain is now chosen first for his ability as a player and second for his leadership skills. Not that the selectors can be sure of the second qualification in the case of Root: he is wetter behind the ears than most who have previously been given the job.
This is no bad thing. Captaincy is an art best applied with an uncluttered mind. The less you know, the more you want to find out; conversely, the more you know, the more there is to fear. As a general rule, young people play sport more freely than their elders - at least until the decision, subconscious or otherwise, is made to move on, at which point demob relief can manifest itself to some advantage. Root, of course, is a long way from that. Occasionally there is merit in an old sweat being handed the job - to calm a storm, perhaps, or guide the young - but in general the mid-to-late-20-year-olds are the most eager and proficient.
Root is 26 and the best of Yorkshire through and through. We should all be excited by the appointment. I remember first hearing about him from Geoffrey Boycott, who said he could really bat. Then Michael Vaughan, who knows him well from Sheffield days, endorsed and expanded on exactly that. Meeting the man himself was even better. He made his first hundred for England at Headingley, an innings raved about in this column, and while interviewing him afterwards I was struck by his light-hearted personality, intelligent observations and splendid modesty. It is a cliché to talk about his little-boy looks but he did have a little boy's enthusiasm for the game, and still does. Of all gifts, this is the one with most currency. Enthusiasm is the elixir of sport.
A fortnight ago, Tom Harrison, the chief executive of the ECB spoke about the need for England to play an "exciting" brand of cricket. Root, it seems, is under orders to entertain as part of the board's strategy to attract more young people to the game. In 1960, Sir Donald Bradman said a similar thing privately to Richie Benaud, and lo and behold, the next game played by Australia was the tied Test against West Indies at the Gabba. Root has much of Benaud's unbridled joy in cricket but will be aware of the dangers of anything too gung-ho. Which is to say that he leads his country in a very different age to the one inhabited by Benaud, an age in which public scrutiny and media demands are more rigorous than ever before.
It was wise of Root to respond to Harrison, indirectly it must be said, with a comment that included his desire for England to recover some steel: "I'd like to be a captain that wins, with a team that is tough to play against and enjoyable to watch. It should be entertaining cricket and that's something I want to get across to the team and the people watching. I think it suits the way we play. The more I can get that across, the better. I just want to be very natural and instinctive." He went on to suggest that his own mischievous nature might be tempered by the arrival of accountability. I guess we all grow up to some degree.
Root is one of the four pre-eminent Test batsmen in the world today (accepting AB de Villiers as on sabbatical and Hashim Amla as in a period of reflection). All four lead their countries. Each of the other three has improved his batting average since accepting the job: Virat Kohli and Steven Smith by huge numbers - 26 and 22 respectively - Kane Williamson by a still-significant six. Of Root's last 17 scores over 50, only three have become hundreds. This drives him nuts and is something he is intent on changing. It would certainly help in making England tougher to play against if Root went big more often. He is capable of the most sublime innings, and in all forms of the game is given the happy knack of judging their tempo to match the requirement of the moment. I'm not sure this can be taught, but if so, he will be busy. In the meantime, he might temper the honey with a little vinegar.
Cricket captaincy involves many variables, requires clear lines of thought and attitude, and assumes responsibility for group interaction that is initially driven by individual ambition. The key is to trust the players, not to nanny them. It is a challenging and stimulating job but also a difficult one. The captain must have a modus operandi that his players understand and into which they buy. Root's early expression of intent is a guideline in itself, and his brief flirtations with the job indicate a willingness to keep the game alive and moving forward. Doubtless he will make this clear to the players he has a hand in choosing but most will already understand. Dressing-room life tells you much of what you need to know about a team-mate. The present England team appear to have a good spirit and to trust one another, a valuable asset, especially after a winter of defeat. Alastair Cook surely takes much of the credit for this and Root will be keen to keep it intact. He might also profit from looking back at Brendon McCullum's reign, which began amid the darkness of political infighting and finished beneath a star-spangled sky.
Speaking at the Cowdrey Lecture about the impact of the death of Phillip Hughes, McCullum said: "Cricket was meant to be a game, not a life-or-death struggle [...] nothing we could or couldn't do on the field really mattered in comparison to what had happened to Phil. Our perspective changed completely completely for the rest of my time playing Test cricket for New Zealand, and we were a much better side as a result.
"[…] We worked out what would work for us [...] To try to be humble and hard-working and to enjoy what we were doing. […] We were just trying to be authentic in how we acted, played the game and carried ourselves.
"[…] We weren't righteous in our stance and demanding that other teams follow our lead, but for us it was so good to play free of the shackles - to genuinely love the game again and to acknowledge and enjoy the opposition.
"[…] In reflecting on my 14 years as an international cricketer, I accept my numerous failings and mistakes but I also celebrate that when I retired, the New Zealand team has rediscovered its soul. [W]e won't win every game or be the world's best team, but I think [our followers] are able to look at the team as a representation of our culture."
Right there is the spirit of cricket.
The early days of captaincy are idealistic and from them often comes a honeymoon period. Root's position is unusual in that he won't lead the team until July when the Test matches against South Africa begin. Until then, he is a subject of Eoin Morgan and will see this period as an opportunity to look deeper beneath the surface of those around him and the games they play. He is naturally gregarious but has not yet had to answer for defeat and deal with the vast range of fair, unfair and hugely irritating questions that comes with it. Can he find, amid the hectic nature of this ritual and the accompanying anxiety, a calm place that shows him to be optimistic but not blind; accepting and not judgmental? Equally, at times of triumph, can he resist triumphalism?
If Root manages to create a team in his own image, and better still a successful team, it will be a good one to watch. All his instinctive cricketing attributes are enjoyable. Think of the seamless way in which his orthodox batting technique morphs into outrageous invention when required; the wicket-taking part-time offbreaks that appear to outsiders as fodder but to an opponent as dangerous bait; the brilliance of the slip-catching and the wonderfully liberated celebrations that follow them; the energy in each step taken and each sudden movement made; the ever-present alertness; the ongoing encouragement of those around him; the overriding sense of possibility that oozes from every pore. The 80th Test captain of England is a man with the game set deep in his soul. The portents are good.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK