Where Joe Root is now, is no surprise to Nadeem Khan
February 05 2021
The contrast in style between how Root and Dom Sibley played India's slow bowlers during their double-century partnership could hardly be lost on anyone.
A bit like India's bowlers, Nadeem Khan, the former Pakistan left-arm spinner, knows how it feels to bowl all day at Joe Root.
Khan is the older brother of Moin, the former Pakistan wicket-keeper, and played more than 100 games for Sheffield Collegiate, Root's club in Yorkshire, as an overseas pro across six seasons. Most days during those summers, he would be roped into bowling at Root and his brother Billy in the club nets, coaching them on the intricacies of batting against spin. The three became close. "It is like my son now, " Khan says. "Every time I watch cricket and Joe is playing, I start praying for him to score runs."
Root mentioned the influence Khan had on his development against spin in the build-up to the first Test. Khan, who played two Tests for Pakistan and is now the PCB's High Performance Director, took 254 first team wickets for Collegiate at an average of 17.80. He and Root played the whole 2007 season together when Root graduated to the first team as a teenager before he went off to play for Yorkshire. The player Root is now against spin has its foundations in those net sessions and club games in Sheffield.
"The pitch at Collegiate was a turning pitch so that used to help me a lot," Khan tells Cricbuzz, via Zoom, from Pakistan. "Playing there, I became a hero and Joe and Billy were young kids so they looked up to me. We used to practise a lot together there. They used to come nearly every day at the ground. We had a really good time."
While the surface on the first day in Chennai certainly did not spin all that much, Root displayed most of the qualities that had brought him two subcontinental hundreds in his previous two Tests in Sri Lanka. He defended smartly and softly, manoeuvred the ball into gaps, and swept, reverse swept and switch hit when the time felt right. His 20th Test hundred was not without its moments against the fast-bowlers - he edged Ishant Sharma twice just in front of the cordon and was beaten twice in succession by Jasprit Bumrah late on - but he was otherwise in command against India's three spinners.
The contrast in style between how Root and Dom Sibley played India's slow bowlers during their double-century partnership could hardly be lost on anyone. Root moves seamlessly when he is in this sort of form, his body flows into position and the bat glides the ball around the ground. Sibley rarely moves seamlessly. He is far more robotic, crabbing across his stumps before the ball is bowled. His hands and feet end up in some strange positions after he has played a shot. The only time Sibley looks particularly eye catching is when he lasers the ball through mid-wicket. Other than that, he is rather more effective than he is aesthetic.
There is no shame in that, though. There have been plenty more attractive England openers in recent years who have been unable to add the substance that Sibley has so far shown. And more than anything it is substance which sustains a career at Test level. It took a fine piece of bowling from Bumrah in the last over of the day to rob Sibley of the hundred he so deserved.
Khan thinks Root is more flexible and natural against spin than many other English players because of he faced a lot of it from a very young age and also because he was a relatively small teenager which meant he had to rely on placement and dexterity rather than power. "When he plays, he plays a bit differently to other English cricketers, with the wrists," Khan says.
"He played a season in the first team with me before going to the Yorkshire academy. That's where he learnt to use his wrists because he didn't have the power of a first team player. He was very good at defence and used to take a lot of balls. Then he realised he needed to score runs so started manoeuvring the ball. It shows in his game now.
"The development all depends on conditions and which sort of players you are playing with. I was a spinner, on a turning pitch and he was used to playing against me most of the time when the pitch was turning.
"When you see a young kid, you always tell them the basic things. To play spin, either you go to the pitch of the ball or you play as late as you can. Always play with the spin. These are the basics. Then he developed shots, playing against the spin, playing through extra cover against my left-arm spin, then sweeping against the turn to create gaps. Because of his passion and hard-work, he learnt very quickly.
"I have worked with so many kids for so long but he was one of the guys who stood out as wanting to be perfect on every shot. When he played through extra cover, he would play half an hour just doing that." It was unsurprising then that when Washington Sundar overpitched in the final session, Root simply drove him through the gap at extra cover for four. It is a shot Root has been grooving since he was a 12 year-old, facing Khan in the nets.
When you speak to those who have played or worked with Root, they often say that he loves talking cricket. Khan owned a Mexican restaurant in Sheffield and Root often used to turn up for some food and to talk about the game, asking lots of questions, trying to learn what he could. "He was just so passionate," Khan says. "Billy was a very talented cricketer but that was the difference between them. The determination and passion in Joe wasn't there quite as much in Billy. I used to think that Billy was more talented. But Joe learnt very quickly."
Root certainly fell back on some of what he has learnt today. He took 54 deliveries for his first 12 runs, wary of the reverse swing that had accounted for Dan Lawrence and the bounce Ravichandran Ashwin was getting. Once Root got into his stride though, there was little India's bowlers could do to control him. His next 88 runs took just 110 balls, as he rotated the strike, punished anything short and unfurled his trademark sweep variations to anything full. It was text-book Test match batting. He realised the danger period and then accelerated as India's bowlers tired.
Khan often ended up tired after bowling to Root in the nets at Collegiate. But all those hours have played their part in the development of England's captain and helped him become one of the best players of spin the country have produced in recent times. Where Root is now, is no surprise to Khan. "Even at that age, 13 or 14, I thought he could do well for England," he says.
How right he was.
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