Will India be the next coming of Joe Root, offspinner?

It all began with some typically unfiltered Yorkshire honesty from a trusted mentor.

Steve Oldham had always pushed Joe Root to be better. The former Yorkshire academy coach was by no means the first to spot the magic contained in the bones of this kid from Sheffield. But he was certainly one of the first to offer him challenges to overcome, whether drafting him into teams two years above his age group, getting the bigger kids to bowl at him, or sitting him down during games and testing him on what would happen next. Pressure creates diamonds, and Oldham was that pressure.

But it was at the tail end of Root’s teenage years that Oldham offered up some frank career advice.

“This won’t get you anywhere,” he said dismissively of Root’s bowling, which at the time was bit-part medium pace – “sweat-band swingers”, as Root puts it, though Oldham probably used less flattering terms.

They supplemented Root’s main pursuit as he skipped through the pathway system, even at England Under-19 level. But Oldham was always looking ahead, and this extra string wouldn’t cut it in the real world. His suggestion? Give offspin a whirl.

The rest is history. And, well, not only still going but about to reach a whole new level on this tour of India.

Jack Leach returns as the primary spinner, supplemented by one-cap wunderkind leggie Rehan Ahmed and punts on tall twirlers Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir. And then there’s Root, an enthusiastic part-timer, with more first-class wickets than the latter three, who now has his biggest assignment to date.

“Rooty knows he’s going to bowl a lot more than on previous tours,” said England spin-bowling coach Jeetan Patel in an interview with the Guardian last week. A greater input in bowling meetings, maybe even an invitation to a bowlers-only WhatsApp group that tends to get formed on these long tours, awaits. And a whole lot of twirling.

The evolution from parlour trick to regular off-Broadway stages has been steady, and recently, necessary. Ben Stokes has leaned on Root’s spin as a crutch for his own gammy left knee that has left him unable to bowl. Though the captain has finally had an operation, Root will be England’s sole allrounder over the next eight weeks.

There’s an element of freewheeling to Root’s offies, rarely concerned with economy rates and often sprinkling in the odd leggie or seam-up delivery. His own description of his craft reflects its mildly chaotic nature:

“A slow bowler that tries to bowl offspin, then tries to make up for it with other things that aren’t actually that good. A bit jack of all trades, master of absolutely none. Right-arm optimistic? Probably. Oh, and pretend that you know what you’re doing, but most of the time you don’t.” It doesn’t quite fit on a television graphic, does it?

He has long cited a tried-and-tested method with the bat that governs the approach with the ball. “I try and try and put myself in their [a batter’s] mentality, where I’m thinking, ‘What would I least like to face?’ in any situation of the game. Then, with my limited skill, how can I then try and deliver that.” Fagin nous laced with disarming Artful Dodger cheek.

Last summer, Root sent down 63.1 overs across six matches – a figure only eclipsed by 86.3 in 2015, which was a ten-Test summer – as much to fill in for Stokes as to counter Australia’s left-hander-heavy line-ups. Travis Head and Alex Carey (twice), were three of his six Ashes victims, taking his average against southpaws to a respectable 31.67.

The figure for right-handers – 60.88 – is more pertinent, given the make-up of India’s middle order. Quite the drop, though Root has familiarity with conditions, having sent down 45 overs in India last time around. And it was in Ahmedabad in 2021 that Root took what remains his one and only five-wicket haul: 5 for 8 in 6.2 overs in the second innings of the third Test.

Only twice had an English bowler conceded less while taking five or more wickets, and Root became the first England captain since Bob Willis in 1983 to take as many in an innings. As impressive as those figures are, most of the “credit” was attributed to the pitch.

“It sums the wicket up slightly,” said Root after England had lost the match by ten wickets inside two days. “If I’m getting five wickets on there, then you can tell it is giving a fair amount of spin.”

The spike in workloads on the field has taken its toll. Root tore his right pectoral twice last winter, both times after final matches of series – against Pakistan and New Zealand, across which he bowled 81 overs.

The alarms from the body were heeded. He has smartened up his warm-ups to ensure the muscles are primed for the extra work. An obvious adjustment, no doubt, but a noteworthy tweak for a player often late for his press engagements because of how long he’d spend batting in the nets.

Therein lies another strand to all this. How will this affect Joe Root, the batter?

It was three years ago, on England’s first journey overseas during the Covid-19 pandemic, that Root somehow used a subcontinental tour riddled with an unusual set of anxieties to launch his greatest purple patch. He would finish the three months in Sri Lanka and India with three centuries, two of them doubles, pocketing three more by the end of 2021 among 1708 aggregate runs, the third most by anyone in a calendar year. Though another disappointing Ashes winter followed, he’d end 2022 with five more hundreds, then overcame a blip leading into 2023, when he reaped two more.

The liberation of giving up the captaincy has seen him average 58.73 in 18 caps under his best mate. A strike rate of 75.60 in that period backs that up, along with the reverse ramp-scoop, which has become his “heat check” – an uncharacteristic shot basketball players take when they’re on fire.

There can be no doubt he has the hot hand. Form and freedom are why he is one of the key pillars of Bazball. And it is not overly cautious to worry about how the extra responsibility may impinge on his batting. Considering he is returning from a disappointing 50-over World Cup campaign, the glass-half-empty fear is one of the best players of spin, averaging 50.10 with the bat in India, might not be able to access the levels of childlike joie de vivre Stokes and Brendon McCullum have allowed him to rediscover.

Of course, it will take more than one man at the peak of his powers to best an India team who have won their last 16 home series. The 17th, of course, was England’s famous win in 2012.

The first of Root’s 135 caps came in the final Test of that tour. A time-sapping 73, then a ball-to-the-corner 20 off 56 deliveries, got England the draw that secured a historic 2-1 scoreline. Housed within a turgid five days in Nagpur was a solitary over before lunch on day three. No one thought then that Root would return almost 12 years later with so much resting on his bowling. Or even last month for that matter.

When the travelling party was unveiled last month, Rob Key was asked whether the media should consider Root an allrounder ahead of this assignment. “I think you should consider him as being able to do a decent job with his offspin,” replied the men’s managing director with a knowing grin.

Even in an England set-up full of positive messaging, there is no over-egging of Root’s talents as a spinner. A Test record of 60 wickets at 44.33 paints a clear picture of someone who has done exactly what Oldham predicted would be asked of him all those years ago.

It’s just that now, on the toughest touring assigment, Root will be asked for much more.

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