Chris Adams, former England player and then the director of cricket at Surrey, was peering into the eyes of 19-year old Jason Roy. “I wanted to see if the boy had it before we gave him a professional contract. I remember it was a touch-and-go situation on the contract.” A dream on the line and men in power looking for something that could turn a 50-50 call in his favour. Roy bared his soul.
It was at Adams’ office at the Oval, with Jason’s father Craig in attendance. Adams could have been a headmaster at a PTA meeting with an errant kid in tow. Adams knew Roy had the talent but he, and other coaches, were concerned about his emotional quotient – whether Roy could keep his emotions in control.
Just like what the world saw on Thursday in Birmingham: Awesome talent but also, the tantrum after a bad decision. Back when Roy was a teenager, his emotions were threatening to affect his cricket. He would hit a fiery 30-40 and throw his wicket away. More than Adams, Roy’s father Craig was the one who was vocal with his son in that meeting. The chat was about his inability to control his emotions as that was affecting the decision-making in his batting.
“I could directly look into his soul, so to say. Here was a young man who was going to make it. I could see he wanted it so desperately,” Adams tells The Indian Express.
But what did he see? “I can’t explain it really. You actually look someone right down to the soul and all I saw was a burning desire. Based on that meeting, it was sealed. I like a fiery character but we wanted to be sure of certain things. I knew he wanted it more than anything else in his life. It was an easy decision for us after that meeting. He would be the first to admit all his coaches had frustrations with him – his inability to control his emotions,” Adams says.
“At the end of that meeting, it was a bit of relief for all of us really, that he was getting a contract. This was it now and I got the feeling that he is going to knuckle down, work hard, and get ahead. He loves cricket too much to throw it away.”
Roy is 9. At a little prep school. He sees a couple of ponies at the ground and jumps on their bare backs and rides them around. A free soul. “I can’t confirm it but that’s the story I heard. But I won’t be surprised. He is a free soul,” says a teacher.
He is 11. Now at Reigate Priory school, with cricket coach Jim Harmer who sees the boy walking with a bucket filled with balls and positioning himself in front of a building. “It was a tall building with a large roof – 25 feet, I would reckon.” And young Roy would hit the ball over that building. Whack. Whack. “I had to go around the building to fetch the balls, if they weren’t lost by then,” Harmer laughs.
Roy is 22 and standing on the ledge of the pier at a beach in Durban. He was born in South Africa and his father Craig moved to England when Jason was about 9. Andrew Shedlock, a cricket coach and a friend of Craig’s, is standing down and watching Roy up the pier. “He would dive into the sea.”
This was a couple of seasons after he had his professional contract with Surrey and was with Shedlock for six weeks to amp up his fitness. “We did a lot of endurance work, running on the beach, with props, and I would devise special ways for him. It was very intense. Jumping into the sea was part of it.”
Shedders, as Roy calls him, would make him bat in the nets and during it, after a shot say, would make him run two laps. Then back to more batting. “I would get him to bat under fatigue. Those six weeks was more about fitness than batting but I wanted to make him cricket-fit.” Unsurprisingly, Roy craved for more torture and returned two years later for a two-month intense boot camp of sorts.
When he was 15 and playing in clubs with people older than him, he would still go bang-bang. “The retirement number was 25 in the amateur clubs and he wouldn’t get to bat for too long as he would have smashed 25 runs in no time, and had to retire quickly!” Harmer says. “He was fearless and loved other sports as well – was a pretty good rugby player where I would say he picked up a lot of his toughness.”
Harmer began to introduce defensive play into Roy’s approach, tighten his technique and soon, Roy came into the ambit of former England batsman Graham Thorpe at Surrey.
Adams picks up the story. “Thorpe’s philosophy is how well you can play pace bowling, particularly short bowling. And how well you can play extreme spin. If you can’t play medium pace or finger-spin, then you are in the wrong business, he would say!” Adams says.
And so Roy went to work with Thorpe. Hours and hours of training, hitting the ball straight down the ground. A lot of work was spent on spin. One could see all of it paying off when he absolutely launched himself against the Australian spinners in the semifinal. Adams focused on Roy hitting straight, and Thorpe worked on his spin-pace technique and the “combination of those two aspects I think has produced a wonderful cricketer,” Adams says.
All Thorpe wanted was, in Adam’s telling, for Roy to have a technique to negate a good ball. “Hone your technique, not change it, but present enough options to have your basic game covered.”
The talent wasn’t ever in question, the fiery temperament was. Harmer remembers how the clubs would formulate a plan to handle young Roy. “We would have someone follow him into the dressing room when he gets out and looks angry; to calm him down. A few plant pots have been kicked away and other non-living things have borne the brunt. Bats have been thrown.”
His coach at Kendrick, Whitgift school in Croydon, had one worry about Roy – on a cricket field. “I was a bit worried about whether he could bat long enough – and not just make good-looking 40s. “Mark Butcher, former England batsman, is a good friend of mine and so I took Jason to him. He was 17 then. Mark was somewhat similar in temperament to Jason, and I thought he would be great for the lad. Mark helped him soak up the atmosphere of professional cricket in Surrey.”
It seems Roy was lucky to an extent to run into a series of men who liked what they saw in him, never tinkered with his technique, but tried their best to hone his skills and temperament. Adams reels out the names: Gareth Townsend, Alec Stewart, Alastair Brown, Butcher, Thorpe, Ian Salisbury. The English cricketing system had realised that they had someone special and tried to find ways to polish him.
The temperament was in question but his character never was. Though there have been moments like the one in Birmingham with umpire Kumar Dharmasena, Roy has been sort of keeping a lid on his emotions. “Way better than before for sure,” Adams says. “Back then, his emotions could swing extreme. We at Surrey worked on helping him develop the ability to see himself rather than be himself.”
“It doesn’t mean we were trying to change him drastically – what I mean is for him to see what sort of person he can be, the type of sportsman he can be. If he could have an understanding of what that looked like, we felt, he could naturally gravitate towards that image.” Adams says. “If you watch him these days, when he gets out, he would have been inside screaming, cursing but he had a calm look when he walked off.” (This obviously doesn’t count anger at umpiring errors). “Barring a stray occasion or two, it looks he has got it all together,” Adams says.
“We would make a young Jason, probably 19-21, sit down and quietly go through the events from the match. What made him throw his wicket away. A methodical approach – and a lot of patience. Make him understand that a dazzling 40 wasn’t going to affect the game. About the discipline around the off-stump. Stuff like that. He has matured a lot the way he bats now. For example, against spinners, he would go down the track and launch himself, hit couple of breathtaking shots and get out. These days, he seems to be so much more in control both sides of the pitch. That takes skill. He has come a long way in the last couple of years.”
All the coaches and mentors who were spoken to seem to be happy with one crucial element: The atmosphere in the current England team with Eoin Morgan. They feel that he promotes an aggressive style of cricket, and Roy has flourished. J Roy, a fun free-spirited soul, who loved smashing the ball, has found his spiritual home in Morgan’s team. Next stop, The Ashes, but first the small matter of a World Cup final.