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Cricket news - Minimalist Root cuts the batting fluff
"Ttok...Ttok...Ttok..." It's a clicking sound that you hear Joe Root make with his tongue against the palate every time he shadow-practices a shot in the nets. It's almost cute how he does it, like a kid would at home with a bat in front of the mirror or maybe even we relatively less-talented cricketers still do while holding a similar object in our hands, be it a folded umbrella or even an aubergine in the kitchen.
And Root does it every single time, without fail - only that the intensity of the ttok varies based on whether he's practicing a defensive glide towards thirdman or a fierce cut shot. And three days out from the second Test at Lord's, the England captain was letting out ttoks literally after every ball he faced. It was an optional training day for the England team - coming on the back of a heavy defeat at Edgbaston - where only five of them showed up, including the skipper.
Root had got starts in both innings in Birmingham, making 57 in the first innings before falling to a freak one-handed return catch from Peter Siddle and then poking at an off-break off the rough from Nathan Lyon to be caught at short-leg for 28 in the second. But as he faced up to Graham Thorpe with the sidearm on this sunny Sunday (August 11) afternoon, Root seemed rather worked up with his technique and the way he was shaping up at the crease.
He just didn't seem to be in a happy place either in front of the stumps or in his head. Like is the case when that happens, his feet simply weren't getting into great positions either as he kept getting beaten outside his off-stump or getting hit on the pads literally every third ball he faced. Invariably when the ball was pitched on a good length or slightly fuller, Root's front-foot would either be on the move or be half-planted on the floor at the time of contact. And each time that happened, he would stand there hands on hips asking nobody in particular, at times Thorpe, about where he was going wrong. This was followed of course with a few ttoks. Then back to facing the next delivery.
Three-four hurried taps on the floor with the bat would be followed by Root straightening his torso, then a semi-squat, a few gyrations of the bat and then into position. At some point during the session, he seemed to think out aloud to Thorpe whether it was this elaborate trigger movement that was delaying, if only slightly, his movement towards the ball. Seemingly not convinced, Root continued with the same routine and his discomfort at the crease continued.
It ended up being nearly a two-hour session where Root's insecurities and fallibilities with his technique were laid to bare. And he left evidently more warped and muddled in the head than he'd entered with. It resulted in scores of 14 and 0 in the Lord's Test. Root's internal turmoil over his technique and the way he's dealt with it since eased as the series has gone on. The less time he's spent in the nets, the better he's looked in the middle culminating in his crucial 77 in the second innings at Headingley that set England on their way.
It was the best he'd looked all series and Root put it down to "stripping back" his technique a little bit and "limiting himself" a little bit to make sure his defence was shored up. It's no surprise then that in Manchester, he spent less than half the time in the nets than what he had at Lord's and looked a lot more at ease on the eve of the fourth Test.
It all looked rather ominously awry in the lead-up to the Test at Lord's though. Incidentally, Root's session of doubt came in the same net that Steve Smith had spent nearly two hours earlier that day. And while he'd been at his idiosyncratic best, Root would reveal his own quirk or tick, rarely or never seen while he's batting in the middle, during this stint in the net. Every time he played a false stroke, you'd see his right leg shaking anxiously and rather violently while he faced the next delivery, almost like he couldn't wait to fix the mistake he'd made the previous ball. It's this quest for perfection after all that separates the best from the rest.
Like with most highly successful batsmen at Test level, Root's innate fear or aversion to getting out stood out even here while he faced the batting coach. Every time there was an edge or a miscue, his first question to Thorpe or the net bowler would be, "Would that have carried?" And if the answer was not what he wanted to hear, he would pause, gather his thoughts, and then back on strike.
He struggled the most against Ben Stokes when he took the ball and ran in full tilt at his captain. Length balls kept flying past his outside-edge as he continued to get in line with the ball or have his head still for long enough to guide his hands. He even edged a couple of them, almost a precursor to how he would get out to Pat Cummins in the second innings at Lord's and Josh Hazlewood in the first innings at Leeds - both times for 0. At one point, Stokes actually tried to convince a clearly upset Root that the edge wouldn't have carried to a virtual slip, almost as a consolation. So fixated was he on putting it right that he even seemed to get into bad positions against the young left-arm net spinner.
At Leeds, he looked to be equally at wars with his technique two days out from the Test. After an initial foray for nearly an hour, where he continued to have an issue of getting his head, feet and hands in sync to cover the line of the ball and play it under his eye-line. Ironically there's a Joe Root Academy video on YouTube where the man himself recommends a routine where you tuck a tennis ball under your chin before releasing it and driving it on the second bounce.
"The best thing about this is your head is always on top of the ball," he's heard saying in it. It's exactly what he wasn't doing consistently enough, neither here or against Hazlewood & Co. Root then spent 20 minutes in conversation with Thorpe about what looked like potentially adding another little trigger movement in his stance- to be slightly more side-on when he lifts his torso up into the vertical position and then open himself up to be more chest-on at the point of delivery. Fortunately once the discussion was done and Root returned to the nets for another hit, he had gone the other way.
He'd instead decided to literally give up on his trigger movements, even his original ones, and now seemed focused entirely on staying still. This would end up being the shortest of all Root sessions in the nets till this point. As if with a single click, Root seemed to have found a way out. And he was doing exactly what he wanted his viewers to do in the video as he faced Marcus Trescothick with the side-arm-getting his head right over the ball. For good measure, he took out the pent-up annoyance on a young off-spinner, repeatedly smashing him into the stands.
And this new-found, simpler, less-cumbersome Root technique was on full view at Leeds even if he had the misfortune of receiving one of the best deliveries of the series from Hazlewood very early in the first innings. But look at him front up to Hazlewood and the other seamers in the second innings and you'll see how far less Root was moving in his stance before the ball got to him.
There're the two taps on the floor, post which he stays still and bent, and at exactly the point the fast bowler is halfway between the start of his run-up and the bowling crease, Root straightens himself and stays there. Gone are the semi-squat and the gyrating of the bat behind him. The head's still, the eyes are still, the bat's still, the feet are still but balanced and the body is upright. At the point at which the bowler releases the ball, Root looks at complete ease with himself, because he clearly is.
And you could make out he was enjoying his time at the crease too a lot more. Very early in his innings, he defends a length ball from Hazlewood right under his nose and you see batsman and bowler exchange a sheepish smile. It's quiet acknowledgement from Hazlewood that he realizes he's in a contest now. There are a couple of moments in the nascent period of his 77 where Root still seems not fully convinced that he's on top of things, literally. You see him defend a length ball that rolls away towards point, where his eyes instinctively follow the ball for a split-second before he returns his head to its original pose over the bat-like he's making sure he got it fully right.
He didn't have to do it more than twice though as his innings started flowing and he began looking like the Root at his very best. He didn't have to second guess any aspect of his batting either. The only ttoks were coming off his bat as he in the company of Joe Denly set England up for what was to come a day later. Root's mood regarding his batting too had propped up since Leeds. While in Leeds, his response to being asked about getting out while being stuck in the crease was, "I think you're being a little harsh with me", here at Old Trafford he was a lot franker about how his ultra-analysis of his technique had affected the mental and physical side of his batting.
"When it's moving around like that it's so easy to get wrapped up technically and overthink things. It's about being really try to what you know works for you. On occasions you're not going to have it all go your own way, you need a little bit of luck to be on your side. And it was a real grind but sometimes that's what you need - That was the thinking behind it. I didn't want to reconstruct my batting, it's got me to where I am. I'm always looking to evolve it gradually, but not tinker too much," he would say.
He might still only average 29.33 across three Tests in this series. But having finally restricted his pre-delivery movements and settled upon a minimalist approach to overcoming the Aussie pace attack, Root looks poised to pull the trigger on a run-heavy finish to the Ashes, leaving the visitors to deal with the ttok ttok soundtrack echoing from his bat.
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