‘All aboard the Root rollercoaster’

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Joe Root celebrates hitting a century on day one of the first Test against South Africa

Sunshine at Lord’s, acres of blue sky overhead, optimism in the warm July air. It often starts this way for new England Test captains. Goodwill is everywhere. All seems possible.

And it invariably ends rather differently: red eyes and unshaven faces, lost series and forgotten form, broken teams and scuttled dreams. Like being prime minister, you go in fresh-faced and full of ideas and emerge looking twice as old and half as happy.

Think of Alastair Cook slumped in his chair in Chennai last winter, Andrew Strauss with a thousand-yard stare at Lord’s in 2012. Michael Vaughan won more Tests as captain than any other Englishman, yet his reign still ended in tears at his valedictory news conference.

Joe Root has at least had time to get used to the idea. It is five months since his appointment was announced, which compares favourably with the 20 minutes’ warning Alec Stewart was given after Graham Gooch went down with food poisoning on tour in India.

Each man always hopes it will be different. When Root won the toss, to loud cheers from the sun-smeared stands, he gave one of his boyish grins. Just under an hour later, when he walked out to bat with his side 17-2, past the portraits in the Long Room of the skippers who had come before, the smile had slipped away.

This is the rollercoaster he is now strapped into. The drops and swoops come fast in English cricket.

Root will have planned for this day, taken the advice of Cook and Vaughan. Never having captained before, he will have thought about what sort of captain he should be: creative like Vaughan, leading by example like Gooch, as unruffled under pressure as Strauss.

Joe Root calls his first toss as England captain

No plan, as they like to say in the Army, survives first contact with the enemy.

There, in the dressing room he was leaving, passing him on the stairs, waiting for him out in the middle, were the problems: an opening pair that hasn’t really been settled since Strauss’ retirement, a number three who has been dropped and recalled three times in 21 Tests, a middle order that folds like a Brompton bike.

You could carry on – eight Test defeats in 2016, both his main fast bowlers with more than 100 Tests on the clock, a spinner picked in Liam Dawson who is arguably more impressive with bat than ball.

In that lies the greatest challenge of all. How to think about yourself when you are suddenly responsible for the issues of others? How to keep concentration on a ball moving around at close to 90mph when there are distractions everywhere you look?

Even the best don’t always find the answer. Vaughan averaged 50 before he was made captain and 36 afterwards. Cook started brilliantly with five Test centuries in his first six matches and then failed to score another as he averaged just 27 in his first home series.

Root reaches century in first Test as captain

Root too was nervous in his first sorties at the crease. He lost Gary Ballance, the friend and county team-mate whose recall had been his idea, before the 50 was up and then another Yorkshire ally, Jonny Bairstow, with the score on 74. The South African attack was red-hot and lunch still being warmed up.

Twice he could have followed them back through the pavilion’s white gate, once top-edging an anxious hook just past the substitute fielder at deep fine leg, then driving loosely outside off-stump and watching stricken as JP Duminy in the gully let the ball crash through his upturned fingers and away.

Slowly he pushed the diversions away. On a pitch devoid of demons and slowly baking in the sun, he stuck around and then, with Ben Stokes similarly disciplined, put away the bad balls from Morne Morkel and left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj.

His first 50 came up off 89 balls, his second from just 61. That is how good Test batting works, but only he and Stokes, for a while, were able to demonstrate that.

You could have forgiven him for a wild celebration when his century came up, sweeping Maharaj fine for a sprinted three. Tension needs its release.

Instead he stayed in control, a little clench of the left fist, a quick squeeze with partner Moeen Ali, even as the capacity ground stood to salute. More to do, an advantage to be pressed home.

On he went, picking up the pace, finding the gaps. His next 50 runs took 42 balls. When Maharaj did have him stumped, dancing down the track with heavy feet, it turned out to be a no-ball.

Root stumped off no-ball on 149

That fortune and this start will not insulate Root from all that is to come. Cook and Strauss also scored centuries in their first matches as Test captains. So too did Kevin Pietersen, and we all know how that ended.

Root’s contemporaries in the current world order have also marked their directorial debuts in the same fashion. India’s Virat Kohli made 115 on his big day, Steve Smith 133 on his for Australia.

There will be stomach-churners he won’t even see coming, just as Strauss could never have guessed that his star batsman would be caught sending offensive text messages about him to a rival captain, or Cook foreseen that one of his young players would be punched by the opposition opening batsman in a theme bar.

Sometimes it will be the little stuff that wears him down. Vaughan reckoned he made around 150 small decisions every day of a Test match, death by a thousand ifs and buts.

Sometimes it will be the things he can do nothing about. “Luck is the number one thing,” the late Richie Benaud told me a few years ago when I asked him about the secret to successful Test captaincy.

“If you’re not lucky, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You might make a couple of decisions: a bowling change, a fellow gets a wicket; an hour later, you make another bowling change, the chap goes for 16 off his first over.”

All aboard the rollercoaster. Enjoy the ride, if you can.

Special day from start to finish – Joe Root

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