First Posted 22nd August 2014
He reaches his hundred, takes off his helmet and the smile spreads across Joe Root’s face, the sort of smile that makes you feel warm inside. It’s the kind of smile you might see on a young child who’s just finished their nativity play, remembered all their lines, not dropped Jesus and then seen his proud Mum and Dad in the front row. It’s a smile that simply won’t stay on the inside.
After a long old summer, finally the England cricket team appear to be enjoying themselves again.
For those of us who have only ever dreamt of playing for our country, of creaming a cover drive to the boundary at Lords, of uprooting off stump with an away-swinger at Trent Bridge, seeing the players smile is more important than it might first appear.
It’s not that we don’t recognise the hard work, rare talent and total dedication that’s needed. Nor do we ignore the constant pressure on the players, 300 days a year away from families, and the almost insurmountable physical and mental challenges of today’s draining schedule. Sure, it’s hard work being a professional cricketer. Despite all this, though, there’s a phrase that keeps ringing through my head: ‘But, you’re playing cricket for England!’
So to see the ingénue young faces of Root, Jordan, Buttler – even the rejuvenated Cook – smiling again, smiling broadly and unguardedly from the sheer pleasure of playing cricket for England and playing well strikes a chord with us as cricketers and supporters. This is precisely how it should be – not all frowns, snarls and weary resignation.
Beyond the irrepressible youngsters, there are the semi-smilers. Gary Ballance is tempted to, and does, crack a smile occasionally but he’s clearly wary, having let down his guard once and paid disproportionately for it. Moeen is just too serene to beam. Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett would like to but don’t feel comfortable enough in the side yet to let it all out. Ian Bell is busy trying, unconvincingly, to play the part of gnarled, senior pro. Jimmy is…well, Jimmy.
Stuart Broad, on the other hand, seems to be cheering up all the time. Maybe it’s the chronic injuries that have precipitated this change in outlook. Although he must be fed up with them a lot of the time, the injuries must also have given him the perspective that comes from realising your career is finite. He might succumb to a career-finishing injury at any time so, dammit, he’s going to enjoy it while it lasts. Wickets these days are usually greeted with a delighted smile rather than a cynical, world-weary send-off or the ‘This is just what I do’ face that smacks of an over-deliberate display of disinterest.
Winning helps, of course, and so does rotation. The schedules these days are increasingly acknowledged as absurd and it pays to keep players fresh, to take them out of the arena, to make them miss playing. They perhaps remember again what it is to be excited and desperate to play rather than exhausted and desperate for a break.
We all started playing cricket – including the England players – because we love it. And we still do. All we want is to see the best players in the land loving it too. So, keep up the good work lads, keep enjoying your cricket and keep showing us what a pleasure it is to play for England.