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May 26, 2010
There are two ways to look at Andrew Strauss's optional break from international cricket, which comes to an end when he leads the side out in the first Test against Bangladesh at Lord's on Thursday. On the one hand, his decision has been vindicated by the remarkable success that the squad achieved in his absence - culminating, of course, in the ICC World Twenty20 victory in the Caribbean earlier this month.
On the other hand, the serenity of the team's progress since Strauss's last appearance, in the fourth Test at Johannesburg back in January, raises uncomfortable questions about his actual importance to the side - or at least, may threaten to do so if he is slow to rediscover the form that helped haul the team out of the doldrums that he inherited at the start of his tenure in 2009. Such is the nature of international sport. Today's men can become yesterday's heroes with a haste that would be unseemly in any other walk of life.
On the eve of his comeback, however, Strauss did not look like a man who feared that his authority had been ebbing in his absence - far from it. With a subtle emphasis on the bigger picture, namely the twin peaks of the Ashes and the 50-over World Cup in less than 12 months' time, he set the agenda for a tough summer of momentum-building, while repeating the mantra first uttered after the victory over Australia last summer, that every new success is just another stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of becoming the best team in the world.
"I'm incredibly excited to be among the group again, especially after what they achieved in the West Indies," said Strauss. "There's a real vibrancy and enthusiasm about things, and it's great to be part of it again and start putting in place some of things I've been thinking about while I've been away, and speaking to Andy Flower about what he wants to implement. It's an important summer for us, one we really need to get a lot of our thinking and planning right, and it all starts this week.
"We've had quite a lot of success over the last 12 months, but we're still No. 5 in the world in Test and ODI cricket, so it's not all about slapping each other's backs and telling everyone how brilliant it is," said Strauss. "It's about continuing to do what we've set out in the last 12 months - and there are clearly areas we need to improve on in Test cricket. There's huge room for improvement, and we need to do that right now."
When Bangladesh last toured the country in the spring of 2005, they encountered an England side with a similarly ruthless agenda and were bundled aside by an innings in each of their two Tests. Strauss acknowledged that a repeat of those performances was expected in conditions that are likely to favour swing and seam bowling, but insisted that his players would be judged by more stringent criteria than mere scorecards.
"You can't underestimate Bangladesh," he said. "They've got some very dangerous players, but in this series it's important we concentrate on our own game and set our standards very high. Sometimes if the conditions aren't in our favour it'll be hard work against them, but we'll be marking ourselves not on whether we win or lose, but how close we get to playing the type of cricket we want to play. If we do it, I've no doubt we'll win the Tests."
For all his positivity, Strauss knows that the best way to restate his credentials is to lead from the front. "You always need a big score," he said. "That's the way it is in international cricket, but I don't feel any extra pressure. As a captain, it helps if you're scoring runs as you can lead by example more, and I'll be making every effort to do that, but mentally, I'm very hungry and that's a pretty good starting point."
Machiavellian conspiracy theorists might suggest that Strauss's authority will be aided by the absence of Paul Collingwood, the man who captured the Twenty20 crown, and whose stock as a leader of men never looked higher than at the moment of victory over Australia in Barbados. He has been rested for the first Test on account of a shoulder problem, but Strauss dismissed the notion that the pair would have been treading on each other's toes.
"I don't think it makes any difference," he said. "Paul was always an important part of the decision-making process anyway. He's one of leaders in the team, and a good friend. We've had a couple of good chats since he got back, and he's always been an incredibly loyal source of advice. I don't think that'll change.
"The reason I didn't make myself available for the Twenty20s is probably the very reason they went on and won it," he added. "The first six overs are so crucial, and it's not a massive strength of mine to be whacking the ball straight over the bowler's head, which is why I didn't feel myself among the best 11 Twenty20 players in the country. I had no regrets at not being there, but I had a huge amount of enjoyment and satisfaction out of seeing them doing so well and playing that way."
He'll be satisfied, too, at the manner in which many of England's players have developed in his absence - not least Tim Bresnan, who was a fringe squad member at the turn of the year, but has suddenly become an integral figure in all three forms of the game. "He looks very confident, at ease with his game," said Strauss. "He's overcome an important hurdle in Test cricket, proving he can go and take wickets consistently on flat wickets. It's been great to see him come through as he has capabilities with bat and ball."
And then there's Alastair Cook, Strauss's stand-in in Bangladesh, and a player whom he feels has benefited immeasurably from the responsibility of leadership. "There's no doubt you learn a lot about yourself and the game of cricket when you have the chance to lead a side," he said. "Alastair has learned a lot of lessons and has come back stronger for it. He will be a very valuable source of help and advice over the summer."
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