August 29, 2012

Strauss - A very English captain

It is with some sadness, even from the other side of the world, that I digest the news of Andrew Strauss retiring from all forms of cricket

It is with some sadness, even from the other side of the world, that I digest the news of Andrew Strauss retiring from all forms of cricket. Sadness yes, surprise no. For a man of Strauss's breeding and class, it comes as no surprise that he announced his departure from one of the top jobs in English society with little fanfare and no histrionics. His batting style was ever thus too. Even his departure mirrors his career - consistent, reliable, a minimum of fuss and no hanging around when the finger was raised. A good man.

2012 has been the year of surrendering good, decent men from the international stage. They don't come much better than Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and now Andrew Strauss. I speak not necessarily of runs, catches and wins but of that indefinable quality that speaks to the heart of what cricket stands for in the minds of sentimental old fools like me. These men were gifted and elegant batsmen whose Test records are up there with the best in the history of the game, albeit (Dravid apart) not necessarily walking in the elite company of the 'all-time Greats'.

Of the three players, watching VVS do his thing was probably the best entertainment I can imagine. Those wrists of steel barely seemed to hit the ball in anger and it is surely was not a coincidence that all of these men played their careers without showing any public demonstration of anger or boorishness, even under extreme pressure.

There are some other great batsmen, some of them still thrilling crowds to this day, some of them waning in the shadows of remarkable run-scoring careers who may just wish they carried themselves with the posture and class of a leader like Strauss. Then again, maybe those other individuals will never really understand what I meant by that whimsy, which only further underscores my point. If you have to ask the question, you don't deserve the answer. A Strauss, Dravid or Laxman didn't need an outward show of mongrel to prove anything to the world, least of all to themselves.

Being Indian and being part of the resurgence of Indian cricket will guarantee Dravid and Laxman a place amongst the immortals of the game, even for the non-Indian fans. Dravid's statistics and technical brilliance alone ensures that; VVS earns that right through the artistry of his strokeplay and a few epic innings' that will stand the test of time and memory. But what of Andrew Strauss? How will he be remembered and will his excellent but not brilliant Test record soon be forgotten?

It is only one man's opinion but I would hope that Strauss' legacy will endure for longer than his performances will be remembered. To me, he epitomised a captain, a very England-captain (if you know what I mean) who knew how to play the game 'properly'. With bat in hand he was a doughty competitor and a hard nut to crack. His second innings at the Gabba on the last Ashes tour, having been dismissed for a duck in the first over of the Test series in the first dig, may be forgotten in light of the heavy run scoring feats of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott but it was a statement of intent from a captain who was not going to surrender the Ashes on Aussie soil. His amazing innings against India in the recent World Cup showcased another side to his game that frankly, I didn't know he possessed. Most of all though, he was able to take England to the top of the world without losing his head and that's what I admire so much about him. I cannot recall him being disrespectful to umpires, opposition players or even team-mates. Even the latest brouhaha involving Kevin Pietersen was handled with diplomacy and dignity. It was just so Strauss and so olde-worlde English, from a distant generation almost.

In much the same way, I think both Dravid and Laxman were also consistent with their personal brands and consistent with the brand of the old-fashioned Indian cricketer. They were gentle artistes with minds of steel, yet did not feel the need to validate their competitive credentials by unnecessary displays of petulance or ill-temper. I suspect the cricketers who played against all three gentlemen realised that they were up against strong, hard men but there seemed to be something different about them, a touch of class that defied mere statistical analysis.

Cricket is fortunate at the moment - it has decent chaps leading the way from all around the world. Hashim Amla and AB De Villiers are thoroughly likeable chaps. Tendulkar of course hardly needs to be mentioned, such has been his consistency of behaviour throughout his career. In Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, it appears that we have two statesmen of the game who know where to draw that fine line between class and crass. New Zealand's Stephen Fleming was to the manor born in that role, Shiv Chanderpaul is an enigma that defies explanation, in technique and temperament. Even Inzamam ul Haq seemed to be a player who was sometimes in a zone all of his own. How much of that was imagined or real I could not tell but he seemed immune to some of the emotions around him, the famous Oval Test notwithstanding of course.

Watching the closing stages of Pakistan Australia ODI from Sharjah threw up yet another likeable character in the modern game; George Bailey. I have had the pleasure of knowing him since he was a young man so I declare my bias upfront but watching him steer Australia to victory and then closely watching his spontaneous, yet muted celebrations afterwards just hinted at a man who understands balance and context. His smile is infectious and boyish but the maturity he shows in disappointment and triumph, imposters both of them, and speaks volumes for his leadership credentials. Even with Strauss exiting the game, we have good leaders around the world who understand that cricket is more than just about winning and losing. Alastair Cook has a Strauss-like air of calm and decency about him, Michael Clarke is not prone to brain snaps, MS Dhoni is extremely calm under duress and Misbah-ul-Haq appears to be making a tough job look like it can be fun which hasn't been true of all Pakistan captains in recent times.

I digress though from my dirge to Strauss; he leaves the game with his head held high and no doubt well respected by his peers and foes alike. I can only hope that young chaps like Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson realise that you can be as hard as nails without a sharp edge. If that is Strauss' legacy, it is indeed one to be proud of, not just for England but for world cricket in general. Cricket's statistics may not rate him in the top echelon but to borrow a quote from his erstwhile namesake Richard Strauss the composer "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer".

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane