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Fred Root: An innovator on the field, a radical off it

Fred Root. Wikimedia Commons
Fred Root took eight wickets in three Tests at 24.25 for England. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Worcestershire champion Fred Root was born on April 16, 1890. He was one of the earliest to gauge the ill-treatment (especially financial) dished out to the professional cricketer. A supreme strategist, Root was also one of the earliest exponents of leg-theory bowling. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career of a man whose honest efforts on the field and radical thoughts off it made him one of the most intriguing characters of between-wars cricket.

The predecessor of Harold Larwood

Wisden mentioned that Charles Frederick Root “was celebrated as a leading exponent of ‘leg-theory’ bowling.” In Bats, Balls and Bails Les Scott had concurred with the words mentioning that Root was “one of the first exponents of leg-theory bowling.” The finest compliment, however, had come from a legend.

In the award-winning biography penned by Duncan Hamilton, Harold Larwood had mentioned: “Fred Root bowled to exactly the same field as I did in Australia. I was faster. I was more accurate. Perhaps, I had more men on the leg-side. But it was roughly the same.”

A champion fast bowler who relied mostly on in-swingers with the new ball and off-cutters with the old, Root generally presented the batsman with an umbrella of short-legs; his line and length were immaculate and his movement venomous; the hapless batsman, not being able to counter movement and pace at the same time, often ended up edging to one of the eager hawks prowling in the leg-trap.

This was as early as in 1923 — a time when both Larwood and Don Bradman were teenagers.

The quintessential professional

In Silent Revolutions, Gideon Haigh had dedicated a chapter to Root. The oxymoronic title of the chapter read Gentleman Player; there could hardly have been a better phrase to describe Root. He was a professional with the heart of an amateur, but his status as a player forced him to act otherwise.

Haigh had mentioned an incident from one of Root’s home matches against Glamorgan: the batsmen, Arnold Dyson and Eddie Bates, had collided mid-pitch, and the ball was returned to Root, the bowler. Root refused to bring the stumps down as both batsmen seemed injured mid-pitch. Amidst voracious cries of “Break the wicket, Fred, break the wicket!” from an amateur our hero snapped: “If you want to run him out, here’s the ball: you come and do it.” The amateur responded with the words “Oh, I’m an amateur. I can’t do such a thing.”

Early in his career, Root was not very happy about having to do “so much hackwork” at nets before the matches. He had complained to “a well-known official holding high office at Lord’s.” The reply was prompt: “I am surprised at you, Root. You are lucky to be playing in the match at all. Please realise that professional bowlers are nothing more or less than the hired labourers of the game.”

He had his vengeance. When he, after serving a tenure for Worcestershire as few have, had asked for a guaranteed sum of £500 as benefit, the Secretary had responded: “If we had any money, Fred, we would make it a thousand pounds, but, knowing as we do, how you so richly deserve all we can possibly afford, shall we agree on £250?” Root whisked out a Lancashire League contract of £600, and the Club immediately agreed on £500.

Root was not one to think of the amateur-professional bridge too highly. As Haigh wrote, his grievance “was not austerity itself; it was the inequality of the burden of sacrifice. Root’s opinion on this aspect was clear: “It is popularly supposed that there is quite a lot of money in First-Class cricket. If there is, I have not found it. It is the worst paid of all the professional games.”

He had backed his statement with numbers: by his own calculations, Root had elaborated that for 150 wickets he needed to send down 1,500 overs a season on an average; he also required 47 innings to score somewhere in the range between 800 and 1,000 runs. For this he got paid a mere £309m from which one had to pay for hotels for away games, taxis, insurance, incidentals, and even one’s own rubdowns.”

Root was the man who was (to the horror of a lot of people) asked Lord Hawke to stop talking in the slips.

Root was the man who had planned limited-overs cricket: “Make the matches short and snappy. So many overs to be bowled by each side if you like, but aim at a definite result in a specific time… The public do not want extensions, they cry out for contractions.”

But more of that later.

The bowler

 

As mentioned before, Root’s strength lay in bowling in-swingers and off-cutters into the leg-side, bowling to a leg-trap. Haigh wrote: “[Fred] Root, with his earthy name, burly physique and open mien, looks like one of those cheerful toilers that were the backbone of the County-Cricket Championship.” Only that, as Haigh added, he wasn’t.

“Find your limits” was Root’s simple message: “don’t let them find you.” His philosophy as a bowler was simple:

-          One need not be express [“Not one in a hundred youths can bowl really fast.”]; or

-          Move the ball to a great extent [“The most dangerous ball is the one that ‘moves’ a little.”]; or

-          To preserve energy when one ages (“A cricketer is as old as he fields.”).

Of course, he used certain tricks of the trade to keep himself going: for example, there was always an extra pair of socks, talcum powder was used for chafing, and methylated spirit was used for skinned fingers.

Denzil Batchelor wrote that Root could move the ball “when the ball was still glossy” or when it was “just as good on a humid day when the ball was as wizened as a Worcester pippin.” Based on the above, Richard Thomas concluded for Cricket Yorkshire: “Reverse swing? Sounds like it to me.”

In short, Root was the man who had probably pioneered both leg-theory and reverse-swing.

As a bowler Root’s numbers were phenomenal: from 365 First-Class matches Root had returned a haul of 1,512 wickets at a remarkable 21.11 with 125 five-wicket hauls and 33 ten-wicket hauls. He finished with hundred or more wickets in nine consecutive seasons, accounting for 1,333 of his career wickets.

With 1,387 wickets, Root stands fourth among all wicket-takers in the history of Worcestershire (after Reg Perks, Norman Gifford, and Jack Flavell). It must be remembered that Root had played for Derbyshire till the age of 30, before finally making the move to Worcestershire. He reached his peak in 1925, a season he finished with 219 wickets of 17.21. Of these 207 had come for Worcestershire — still a record for the side. In fact, of the seven highest wicket aggregates in a season for Worcestershire Root holds five positions including the top two.

As is evident, even if Root was not a rational thinker and a natural innovator, he would have been remembered simply for his bowling. Despite that he played only three Tests and was dropped without really failing: he finished with a haul of eight Test wickets at 24.25.

His batting, of course, was not his strong point: Christopher Martin-Jenkins had classified his willow-wielding of the “block-and-tackle variety” that involved “rugged defence” and “massive lofted drives.” A tally of 7,911 runs at 14.78 may not be earth-shattering, but he still managed to score 23 fifties, and more significantly, a hundred. He was good enough to achieve “the double” in 1928.

Early days and The War

Born in Somercotes, Root qualified for Derbyshire by birth despite being the son of a Leicestershire groundsman. At 15, he visited his vicar for a testimonial with the words: “Please Sir, to Mr Robson, the Secretary of Leicestershire Cricket Club; and I am going to be a cricketer.” When the man turned Root’s request down he went to approached another: by 18 he played for Leicestershire Club and Ground.

He made his First-Class debut for Derbyshire in 1910, sending down two overs against Surrey at The Oval without managing a wicket. The pre-War years were dry for Root: 63 wickets from five seasons at an average of 30.44 was not really something to write home about.

Root was appointed as a Dispatch Rider in World War I, and was hit severely in the chest in the process in 1916. The Army Doctor decreed that though Root would recover, he “could not realistically expect to play cricket again.” Still in his hospital bed, Root arranged for a contract in the Bradford League.

After a solitary match for Derbyshire in 1920, Root made a move to Worcestershire the following season.

A new road at New Road

Root’s first season for Worcestershire showed signs of improvement: he finished with 41 wickets at 26.68, finishing with seven for 85 against Hampshire at Southampton. The next season — 1923, the one where he had first implemented his leg-theory — saw Root rise as one of the finest bowlers in England.

Root’s career took off with six for 93 against Yorkshire at home; later that month he had his first ten-for — four for 32 and six for 63 against Essex at Leyton; then followed his first eight-for, when he broke Kent with eight for 75 at Gravesend (and added two more in the second innings); he finished the season with 170 wickets at 20.52 with 16 five-fors and eight ten-fors.

The next season, 1924, saw Root bowl unchanged to finish with nine for 40 (including the first eight wickets) to demolish Essex for 110 single-handedly at home. A spell of four for 68 in the second innings turned the match in Worcestershire’s favour. That season yielded 153 wickets at 16.39 with 15 five-fors and three ten-fors.

Then came the magic season of 1925, when, as mentioned above, Root bowled the way he never had, before or after, demolishing one Worcestershire record after another. He would certainly have been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, had the almanac not decided to nominate Jack Hobbs as the sole recipient that season.

Root toured West Indies with Freddie Calthorpe’s Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) MCC that winter: after Wally Hammond had taken the tourists to 597 for eight in an unofficial “Test” against West Indies at Kensington Oval, George Challenor and Percy Tarilton added 96 for the first stand till well into the final day.

Enter Root. The hosts were bowled out for 147, as Root returned figures of four for 37; Calthorpe enforced the follow-on, Root bowled unchanged and finished with 11-8-9-4 as West Indies finished on 21 for six: he had almost single-handedly effected a victory.

Test cricket

Root became a serious contender for the Test side after his performance for North against the touring Australians at Edgbaston in 1926. After the hosts were bowled out for 239 (Herbert Sutcliffe had retired hurt) Root, opening bowling with Larwood, scythed through the Australians, bowling them out for 105. He finished with seven for 42.

The leg-theory had worked. It would take a revolutionary turn later, as Root’s bowling partner would find out. However, Root would not become a part of that. Root made his Test debut at Trent Bridge next week. It was certainly not the most action-packed outing Root could have had: it poured down after Hobbs and Sutcliffe had added 32 for the opening stand in 17.2 overs, and no further play was possible.

The teams moved to Lord’s (where Larwood made his debut), where Root clean bowled Herbie Collins and had Bill Woodfull struck behind. Warren Bardsley, however, carried his bat with 193 out of a total of 383. Hobbs (119), Sutcliffe (82), Frank Woolley (87), Patsy Hendren (127 not out), and Percy Chapman (50 not out) all made merry, and Arthur Carr declared with his side 92 ahead.

This time Root felled Jack Gregory for a duck, but Charlie Macartney played the kind of innings only he could conjure: the unbeaten 133 (out of a team score of 194 for five) saved the Test for Australia. Root also bowled Tommy Andrews, and finished added two for 40 to his first-innings tally of two for 70.

Surprisingly, both Root and Larwood were dropped at Headingley. Macartney went even better, unleashing one of those innings that have immortalised his name; the 172-ball 151 is considered by many as Macartney’s finest, and included, a few late-cuts that, as FC Robertson-Glasgow had mentioned, were “so late they are almost posthumous”.

Root was recalled for the fourth Test at Old Trafford: after rain had washed away the Day One and Bardsley had fallen cheaply on the second, Woodfull and Macartney both scored hundreds, adding 192 for the second stand. Root bowled untiringly for hours, first clean-bowling Macartney, and followed by having Woodfull caught. He also removed Jack Ryder and Gregory.

Root’s marathon haul (52-27-84-4) saw Australia collapse from 221 for one to 335. England responded with 305 for five when time ran out. Despite his excellent display Root was left out in favour of Larwood the final Test at The Oval — one that was clinched by masterful batsmanship of Hobbs and Sutcliffe on a “sticky”.

Batchellor wrote: “Having served his turn [Fred Root was] not called upon to be present when the bouquets were handed over and the toasts drunk… The honourable role of decoy duck was important for the first four acts, but not in the fifth.” Root never played another Test, and finished with the rather dubious record of playing most Tests (three) without batting even once.

Back to Worcester

Root continued to deliver goods for Worcestershire. Against Kent at home in 1928 Root returned figures of seven for 125. The hosts, however, conceded a 202-run lead and were asked to follow-on. Root walked out at 218 for five and went after the bowling, finishing with 107 — his only First-Class hundred. That season he managed “the double,” as has been mentioned already.

He came good against Kent again — this time at Tunbridge Wells in 1930. He became the first Worcestershire bowler to take two nine-fors as he bowled unchanged for 46.5 overs to finish with nine for 81. Kent were set a mere 27 in the fourth innings, but once again Root bowled unchanged, finishing with two for 18 as Kent won by six wickets.

By 1931, Perks had emerged as Root’s bowling partner. Against Lancashire at home Root (three for 27) and Perks (five for 19) bowled out the tourists for 75. Then, set 202 to win, Lancashire crumbled against the 41-year old Root, who bowled unchanged: his figures read nine for 23 from 18.4 overs — still the best figures for a Worcestershire bowler; he also became the first from the county to finish with three nine-fors (the feat has been emulated by Flavell).

Root played 20 matches in 1932, but was sparingly used as a bowler, operating mostly in short burst. He sent down only 27 overs per match, but his experience still made him a formidable contender: the wickets were only 40 in count, but they had come at not-too-bad 30.75 apiece.

He hung his boots after that season, only to make a solitary First-Class return for Sir L Parkinson’s XI against West Indians at Blackpool. Root was good enough to remove Teddy Hoad and Jackie Grant in the second innings (in a five-over spell), but that was it.

Post-retirement

Root joined Todmorden Lancashire League after he quit First-Class cricket in a career spanning from 1933 to 1937 Root finished with 489 wickets — still a record for the Club. The 117 wickets he picked up in 1935 remains the second-best for Todmorden after Pat Morfee’s 131 in 1920.

Fred Root. Photo Courtesy: eBay
Fred Root wrote his much appreciated book called A Cricket Pro’s Lot in 1937. Photo Courtesy: eBay

Root went on to write his much-acclaimed A Cricket Pro’s Lot in 1937, a book renowned for its candid, no-nonsense approach on the professional-amateur bar in the sport between the Wars. He later became a First-Class umpire and a correspondent for Sunday Pictorial, earning reputation for his excellent sense of humour.

Root passed away in a hospital at Wolverhampton on January 20, 1954. He was 63 years 279 days. Just before Root had passed away, Len Hutton had become the first professional to lead England. “A title and lots of money doesn’t assure the scoring of centuries,” he had always mentioned.

Despite what he had to go through as a professional, his passion for the sport never seemed to waiver: “This cricket is a great and glorious game. It is played by grand fellows. In spite of my grouses I shall try to play it until the ‘reaper’ bowls me out.”

Fred Root was one of those grand fellows who made cricket the great and glorious game that it is. The sport can do with more of his sort.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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