Strauss's absence sends the wrong message
Towards the end of the South Africa series, Andrew Strauss looked like a player in need of a break. Morne Morkel caused him more problems with his aggressive round-the-wicket line than any other bowler managed throughout a remarkable 2009, and his omission from the Bangladesh tour was an open secret from the moment that he ducked the issue in the immediate aftermath of England's innings defeat at Johannesburg.
That is not to say, however, that Strauss should have been allowed the time off. The decision to put the captain in mothballs for a full three-month break ahead of the start of England's home summer in May doesn't exactly rank as a controversy - although given that another Test captain, Virender Sehwag, has just denounced the same opponents as "ordinary", the Bangladeshis themselves might disagree. But the logic and timing is peculiar, to say the least.
At the very least, it would have looked a more justifiable decision had England not surrendered their series lead in Johannesburg in what was ultimately a performance of disturbing spinelessness. No matter how impressively Morkel and Dale Steyn bowled, the sad fact is that England's twin innings at the Wanderers lasted a meagre 90.4 overs between them - or in other words, they lost the equivalent of 19 wickets in a day.
Against such a backdrop, now is surely not the moment for the captain to take an extended holiday - regardless of the apparently unthreatening nature of next month's opposition. In explaining the decision, England's national selector, Geoff Miller, said that England were looking to the "far future" in blooding Alastair Cook as a leader, but that sort of reasoning is wrong-headed. In the here-and-now of international sport, the present is all that matters, especially when - in England's case - it is so coloured by the recent past.
At present England's Test team is, as Strauss himself admitted after the fourth Test, "not good enough". In the past 12 months they have pulled off a series of remarkable results of every conceivable variety bar a tie - hoodoo-breaking victories at Lord's and Durban; stunning rearguard actions at Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town; and a trio of defeats at Sabina Park, Headingley and Johannesburg that rank among the most crushing in England's Test history - their effort at the Wanderers, in fact, makes into the top ten of England's shortest completed batting performances of all time.
The team is clearly a work in progress, just as it was this time 12 months ago when Strauss was finally handed the reins that he should, by rights, have inherited from Michael Vaughan three years previously. The circumstances of his take-over were, of course, hideous, with the fall-out of the Pietersen-Moores affair gathering pace by the day, and in addition to leading from the front with three big hundreds in consecutive Tests in the Caribbean, Strauss spent much of his early days as leader massaging bruised egos and mending vital relationships within the dressing-room. Nobody can question that his has been an all-consuming role.
But that is the nature of the beast that Strauss inherited, and while the circumstances weren't ideal, he had quietly coveted the role since his interim appointment in 2006 had led to a (then) 3-0 victory over Pakistan. Captaincy is an arduous and all-consuming business, not least in England where the year-round itinerary and constant media scrutiny offer no chance to duck the limelight. Except in Strauss's case it does - his decision not to play Twenty20 cricket means that a natural break was already heading his way in April, just as it did in the previous World Twenty20 last June.
What is more, to sit out the trip to Bangladesh is to miss out on what could prove to be an invaluable bonding experience. In hindsight, England's previous tour of the country, in October 2003, was one of the most under-estimated factors in the rise and rise of Vaughan's England. Then as now they went into the tour on the back of a chaotic drawn series with South Africa, in which a handful of major plus-points (eg the rise of Flintoff then, versus the rise of Swann now) were offset by some unmitigated hammerings (for the Wanderers, read Lord's).
Back then, Vaughan took his raw materials to a country where the expectation of victory created a pressure all of its own, and turned the tour into a six-week beasting session. In the absence of much in the way of a social life, the entire squad hit the gym - press officers and support staff included - and emerged as a lean, mean fighting machine that went on to win six of their next seven series, including (as if we could ever forget) the 2005 Ashes.
It could, at a pinch, be argued that Strauss's absence will test the team's wider development, because he has been unhealthily pivotal to their fortunes in the past 12 months. In five Test victories, he has averaged 61.85 and in eight draws 56.53, but in three crushing defeats he has contributed a paltry total of 73 runs at 12.16, including that tone-setting first-baller at Johannesburg. If England emerge from Bangladesh with a realisation that his success or failure need not determine the final result, then it will be a valuable lesson learnt.
But it is the wider question of team unity that is more pressing. Cook may well be the man to lead England in the still-distant future (though he's provided scant evidence to date), but right now he is only just emerging from a long-term batting slump - and then there's Kevin Pietersen, who is in desperate need of an injection of confidence after an unforgiving year, and for whom the Bangladesh tour actually presents a massive and timely opportunity.
The selectors have explained their decision by throwing the picture forward to next year's Ashes and World Cup, but surely the lessons of the past cannot have been forgotten so quickly. England's Ashes obsession famously derailed their development after 2005, and while this time there's an increased focus on one-day cricket to ensure against a completely one-track approach, the Bangladesh ODIs are still England's last chance to rehearse in subcontinental conditions before 2011.
Besides, as the recent turnover of England Test captains demonstrates, a year is an eternity in cricket. In the case of 2010-11, it starts when the team touches down, without their leader, in Dhaka.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo