South Africa v England, 4th Test, Jo'burg, 1st day January 13, 2005

Cashing in while you can



Andrew Strauss: yet another century puts him into rarefied company © Getty Images
There really is no place like home for Andrew Strauss. Whether it's the green, green grass of Lord's, where he learned his trade with Middlesex and scored each of his first two Test centuries, or the slightly yellow-tinged plains of the highveld, where he lived with his family until the age of six and where he has now added a fifth century in 11 Tests, Strauss is happy to put down roots pretty much wherever he pleases. And it pleases England all right. In an era when cricket tours have become a blur of hotel rooms and airport departure lounges, it helps to have a genuine itinerant in your ranks.

Strauss's rise to stardom has been so sudden that it still seems impertinent to bracket him alongside the greats of the game but, with every passing match, his assault on the record-books grows ever more feverish. Last week he brought up his 1000th run in just 10 Tests and 19 innings - a phenomenal rate that had been bettered among Englishmen only by Herbert Sutcliffe (12 innings), Len Hutton (15) and Wally Hammond (18). And today he joined yet another elite band of brothers.

In their first 11 Tests, only George Headley (seven) and the Aussie Invincibles Don Bradman and Neil Harvey (six each) have managed more hundreds than Strauss has now accumulated - and only Bradman, Headley, Everton Weekes and Mark Taylor have scored more runs than Strauss's 1202 (and, of course, he has another innings waiting in the pipeline here). Only time will tell whether Strauss is a flash in the pan or a star in the firmament, but at present he isn't exactly leaving his legacy to chance.

With a series of scything cuts and crunching pulls, Strauss has now swept past 600 runs for the series and, in all likelihood, he is on the verge of top-scoring for England for the sixth innings out of seven (even at Cape Town he was only three runs adrift of making it a clean sweep). He has been England's kingpin all series, but with the exception of the second innings at Durban, his colleagues have been all too readily skittled. And despite Robert Key's cheering 83 here, that prospect was looming once again by the close, as South Africa roared back into contention with the new ball.

Key's was not a chanceless innings - on 39, he split the webbing in Nicky Boje's hand with a fierce caught-and-bowled chance and, in his eagerness to force the pace he continued to flit outside his off stump in the manner that has been England's downfall all series. But he endured, and ultimately he thrived, using his new straighter backlift to ease all the bowlers cleanly down the ground. Even Shaun Pollock could not escape the treatment. His opening spell was typically parsimonious, but he went unrewarded until late in the day, as the conditions eased and the bat took over in the course of the afternoon.

Strauss and Key compiled a second-wicket stand of 182 - a record for England v South Africa at the Wanderers - and the net result was that, for the first time since the opening Test of the series, England were in a position to put South Africa under the cosh. It was never going to be an easy task, for none of the bowlers was collared - not even Dale Steyn, who had been singled out for harsh treatment at Durban, but had learned his lesson and was waspish in his control of line and length on this occasion. But once Strauss had fallen, the game took on an entirely different complexion. Where once England flowed, they closed the day on a definite ebb.

The omens had seemed rather better at the start of play, when under a clearing sky, Vaughan won his first toss of the series. Given that it was only his seventh successful call in 23 Tests, it was arguably the closest he's come to a hot streak since assuming the England captaincy - with either coin or bat. By the close, he was clinging on where Strauss had failed against the new ball, having eked out nine nervy runs from 45 deliveries.

His struggles are a salutary lesson for England's newest hot-shot. Two winters ago, Vaughan was England's main man. With four hundreds in the bank from his summer campaign against Sri Lanka and India, he sashayed his way to three more centuries and 633 runs against the incomparable Australians, and there seemed no limit to his potential. If Strauss needs any reminder of the importance of cashing in when your numbers come up, it came in the form of the shuffling, fretful figure at the opposite end of the pitch.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa.