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In the Durham Riverside dressing room Joe Root speaks softly, haltingly, a white towel rolled and draped around his slender shoulders. “Some of the things you’ve achieved in your career have been extraordinary.”
Under a malfunctioning TV screen Craig Overton absent-mindedly twirls a tuft of hair on his ankle, his tired eyes fixed on Root. “There’s so many kids now who want to bat, bowl and field because of the way that you have gone about it.”
Bowling coach Neil Killeen fiddles with the ring-pull on a can, listening intently. Jos Buttler fixes an Eeyore stare of such glum intensity into the floor that even the fibres of the carpet feel sad. The victorious South Africans can be heard celebrating in the adjacent changing room. As the noise grows louder Buttler flinches ever so slightly and rubs his temples. Root presses on.
“I think it’s also important to remember that some of the things that you’ve done have captured a nation. They’ve bought people to the game that have never watched it before.”
It’s a quietly powerful and emotional speech by Root, who continues to show his class on and off the field. He ends its by rummaging in a box, pulling out a bottle of wine and padding barefoot across the changing room, past the laundry bags, discarded bowling boots and boxes of Moretti to present it to his friend and teammate Ben Stokes. They embrace, warmly. Pat, pat and release.
These types of video, fly-on-the-wall clips from inside the changing room, training ground, bus, plane or team hotel have been a growing trend for teams around the globe over the past few years. Shows such as The Test, The Edge and The Last Dance have lifted a lid on professional sports teams and have been hungrily pored over by fans old and new.
“If it isn’t on Insta it didn’t happen,” I once overheard someone say on a train and while it made me feel sad, angry and confused all at the same time it does seem to be the modern creed and one cricket is now in thrall to. You do wonder how healthy it can possibly be for these professional athletes to have even more of their job spliced, diced and served up as “content”, yet that’s where we are and that is how the previously sacrosanct space of the changing room has been opened up to the outside world. Fans and critics – of which the internet is never short – have access to more of a sportsperson’s life than ever before.
In some ways these behind-the-scenes snippets scratch a voyeuristic itch (who’s sat next to who? What else is on the team rider other than bananas and chewing gum?) and they also provide an insight into how monotonous, unglamorous and unrelenting professional sport can be. Piles of sweaty kit, the opposition, Craig Overton’s feet and the next fixture are never too far away.
Careers end and careers begin in victory and defeat. As Root gave his speech to Stokes, Matt Potts could be seen at his side. A few hours earlier, he was forced to leave the field during his ODI debut on his home ground due to heat exhaustion as Durham scorched and smouldered like much of the rest of the UK. Potts is at the very start of his career, for him it is likely that a great deal of his professional life on and off the field will be logged and documented, his and other fledgling talents like him are likely to have the lion’s share of their careers – from cradle to grave – shown on a screen in some shape or form.
Stokeshas been followed around by a documentary crew for the past year or more, the trailer for the film is already out. It looks pretty unflinching and takes in all the ups and downs of the last five years – from the Bristol incident to the World Cup final, Headingley 2019 and his self-imposed break from the game last year.
Stokes pulled the pin on his own ODI career last week in order to focus on and maximise his longevity in Test cricket where he is the tub-thumping new leader of a red-ball reset revolution. He’s also still going to be part of England’s T20 plans, a format where he has an underwhelming record at international level as well as unfinished business.
We need look no further than the very same Durham dressing room for an insight into how he is going to approach the next few years, a short scroll up from Root’s speech on the ECB’s social media channels gives you the man himself. It’s no holds barred stuff from Stokes as he speaks to his teammates moments after defeat: “Just keep pushing the boundaries of what we do on that cricket field.” “Take yourselves to the extremes, that’s when we’re able to do stuff that no one else can.” “Keep pushing yourselves to the absolute extremes to realise what you are capable of.” It’s further evidence, not that any were really needed, of Stokes’s vision.
A cricketing ideology whereby there is no limit, no level that is unattainable, no opposition too strong, batting order too deep or run chase too high. It is set out for all to see and hear. Stokes’s manifesto espouses a game without limitations. Fitting really for the modern cricketing world where increasingly nothing at all is off limits.