Joe Root puts golf before Yorkshire, in symptom of system in crisis

It was the photograph that did it. Joe Root pictured on a Scottish golf course while Yorkshire supporters were coming to terms with relegation. Root, the epitome of Yorkshire cricket, grinning broadly alongside Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and Piers Morgan (none of them particularly renowned for checking the county cricket scores), on a day that had reduced many White Rose loyalists to dismay.

Beaming with pleasure alongside Piers Morgan is a sure way to attract opprobrium and social media was quick to condemn.

For many, it felt like the ultimate betrayal. Nobody is loved in Yorkshire cricket more than Root, but suddenly the realisation had dawned that this love might be unrequited; that Root would much rather be making an annual trek to the Alfred Dunhill pro-am tournament, exchanging four days of Championship cricket for four Scottish golf courses, a spot of glamorous company and a decent pay-day.

It gets them all in the end.

If the Championship is to cling on its reputation as a great, historic tournament worthy of continued attention then, of course, some anger is justified. Yorkshire, as do all the 18 counties, nurtures talent from childhood in a system underpinned by a sense of community. Then once they reach fame and fortune, blow me, everyone of them turns out to be a naked capitalist, seduced by $$ signs and a spot of celebrity. County cricket becomes unrewarding and unsophisticated.

As franchise tournaments take hold around the world, and as the game has never been more in flux, upholders of county cricket have never felt more strongly that the world is against them. Their paranoia is understandable. And Root – genial, gentle, gentlemanly Joe – was in their sights.

With Root, it felt different because Root was held to be the Yorkshire player, above all, who really cared. This being Yorkshire, where race politics still swirl, some referenced the climax to the Championship in 2016 when Adil Rashid pulled out of a title decider against Middlesex because his grandmother was seriously ill. He was widely pilloried, not least by his then-captain, Andrew Gale, so it was only fair that Root attracted his share of the flak.

Except should the criticism be tempered? Root is England-contracted. Essentially from the moment that his country took over as his employer, he was transferred from Yorkshire and now lives in a different world. His annual ECB salary long since flew beyond £1 million. Besides that, there are sponsorship deals and, theoretically, the opportunity for short-form cricket in the franchised T20 leagues. Like it or not, his life has moved on.

But he occasionally plays for Yorkshire whenever he needs the practice ahead of another international summer, is unfailingly polite, tries his hardest while he is there and so Yorkshire supporters, who cheer him proudly at every Headingley Test as one of their own, can never quite let go, especially when there is relegation at stake. “Root, Brook, Bairstow,” they chuntered at Headingley about their absentees this week as Gloucestershire, bottom of the table, turned over one of the weakest top sixes in Yorkshire’s history. “Root, Brook, Bairstow.” But only Root was playing golf.

Many of us would prefer a nice liberal, progressive world, where choices are not solely based on money or celebrity. Many of us find inestimable value in a professional cricket set-up that has communal behaviour at its core. It would be nice to think that county cricketers were imbued with this sense of the common good, and that Root could have gone against the trend. Stuart Broad, after all, turned out for Nottinghamshire as they won the Second Division Championship. Among all England players, his commitment to his county cannot be faulted.

But you’d be hard pushed to find a more money-orientated bunch than an England cricket dressing-room, as essentially decent as this intake is. Money is the sine qua non of the professional sportsperson, and the more they get the more it becomes so. To imagine otherwise is naïve at best. These players live in perpetual fear of career-threatening injury or a disastrous loss of form. County cricket is just a safety net that they might one day return to.

Sympathetic references to a “non-stop international schedule” do not please everybody. Root has not played for three weeks and is unlikely to do so again until early December. The mental and physical exhaustion of top-level sport is no defence against the wish for a player to show a sense of belonging, even a sense of gratitude. But those who talk about the gulf in ability between county cricket and the international game only tell half the story – they are now very different worlds.

“We know Root’s decision-making is not always great thanks to that time he was England captain for many years,” was one of the more light-hearted Twitter jibes.

But Root is just the latest illustration of what ails professional club circuit. There have been times this summer when the ECB has pulled one-day and Test squads out of the county schedule at the same time. At the start of the season in April, at the height of IPL, and after a winter of franchise cricket, about THIRTY pace bowlers were absent. The final stages of the Blast are not ring-fenced (nor even properly promoted), nor is the climax to the Championship. And, after all that, still the ECB demand higher standards. At the moment, for all the governing body’s annual share of revenue, this is a one-way street.

When the High-Performance Review talks of reducing the amount of county cricket, and high-profile players such as Dawid Malan and Jos Buttler advocate it, the danger is that the professional game is being asked to redesign itself for the benefit of established players who rarely play it, or for white-ball hot properties such as Somerset’s Will Smeed, whose career path already does not seem to involve the County Championship.

There is another irony here, too. The call for extra preparation time to increase intensity has some merit, but that notion has long been abandoned on the international circuit, where the games come quick and fast. Extra preparation time will be just another day on the golf course or at a sponsors’ function; rest and recuperation will recharge the batteries in time for a payday at an out-of-season franchise tournament.

The county game has a duty to raise standards for England’s benefit. It must also be sensitive to the sort of cricket the players want to play and not exist solely as a convenient backdrop for spectators who just want matches on tap. But it should listen first to the players who want to play county cricket, and those who want to watch it. If someone chooses to spend half the summer in the UAE in a tinpot tournament then so be it.

Root’s golf photograph is a reminder of this. Unwordly? For sure. A simple fact of life? That, too. But as a symbol of English cricket’s changing times, it raises so many questions to which English cricket does not yet have the answer.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps


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