Danny Hall: How I watched England captain Joe Root grow from a boy into a man

Joe Root is the new England captain
Joe Root is the new England captain

The year was 2004 and night was creeping in around our shabby, inner-city cricket ground when I got my first glance of the future England captain.

At the time, there was a lot to take in. I was 13, on my debut for my side’s U17s against the mighty Sheffield Collegiate, a team on the other side of the city who were a world away in terms of attitude, professionalism and, for the most part, ability.

As they turned up as one and started fielding practice in matching tracksuits, I looked round the home dressing room with six players present, noticed one was wearing green astroturf football boots and smiled in a naive, masochistic way.

This was going to be fun.

As it turned out, it was. Over the balcony, we heard the shock as one of the visitors dropped a practice catch and the ‘Future England Captain’ chat started. Danny Walton, a tall, classy batsman who captained Collegiate that day, opened the batting and made a chanceless 50 before retiring.

He was surely the one, we thought.

Wrong.

The new batsman, which seems a wholly inappropriate term for someone who stood barely five feet tall and looked about ten at most, shuffled out. As he approached the middle, he didn’t get any bigger.

“Don’t get carried away,” Neil Clark, our coach, warned us. He’d clearly noticed the looks of confusion, and had seen this kid at district nets.

“This lad’s only 13. But he can play.”

He wasn’t kidding. This, it turned out, was the FEC. Joe Root.

He’ll have long forgotten that day since; he was playing senior cricket by that age, after all, and was probably already developing a thirst for runs that made him one of the best in the world.

But I haven’t. He probably made 40 or so before our 6ft 5in opening bowler finally made a breakthrough, but he was the first, and possibly only, player I saw to actually leave a ball in junior cricket, when kids - including myself - just want to whack the cover off the ball.

He did that, too; as the new boy in the team, I drew the short straw at short midwicket when he rocked on the back foot and smoked a pull shot straight at me. I barely saw it, stuck out an involuntary hand and dropped what would have been a decent scalp in years to come.

Root in his younger days

Root in his younger days

Although I’m sure Joe has been dining out on one of his wickets in that game ever since; when I pulled a rank long-hop of his straight to a fielder, who succeeded where I’d earlier failed and held on to the ball.

Just one reason, amongst many, many, that he’s preparing to lead out England tomorrow morning, and I’m writing about it!

I then had the pleasure - partly thanks to this job, but hopefully not exclusively because of it - of covering Joe’s rise and rise since then. His first Yorkshire contract, his debut for the White Rose, a winter at the Darren Lehmann Academy in Australia when floods in Queensland killed 35 people and gave him a new perspective on cricket, and life.

I remember the excitement in his voice when he called me on the way to the airport, ahead of his first tour with the senior England side to India. He made his debut in the last Test, helped England to a historic series win and has barely looked back since.

I’m often asked if fame, fortune, success and now the captaincy has changed him. Although others are closer to him, and know him better and for longer, I say no.

In the man of 26, I still see much of the boy at 13; an infectious love of the game and a level-headed humility drilled into him by a respected family including mum Helen, dad Matt and brother Billy, who later came in and smashed us around in that 2004 game on the way to a promising career of his own with Nottinghamshire.

Root at his unveiling

Root at his unveiling

How proud they’ll all be tomorrow morning. As should the whole of Sheffield. Only 80 men in history have had the honour of being England captain. Ten from Yorkshire. Two from the Steel City.

The size of the job only sunk in when he was unveiled at Headingley back in February, to an almighty media scrum. I’ve often wrestled with the dilemma of writing about Joe, but he has evolved into a genuine sporting superstar and his achievements deserve championing. It turned out to be a pleasure to cover another chapter in the boy’s remarkable story, and there will be many more I’m sure.

Another one begins tomorrow morning, against South Africa at Lord’s.

Go well, champ.