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As Andrew Strauss outlined the reasons England had lost the series, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that to some extent he was talking about himself
George Dobell at Lord's
August 20, 2012
Mark Nicholas : Kirsten does it again
Features : Smith's South Africa come of age
Report : South Africa hold nerve to take No. 1
News : Strauss wants to map out future
Players/Officials: Andrew Strauss
Matches: England v South Africa at Lord's
Series/Tournaments: South Africa tour of England
Sometimes it is the words that are left unsaid that say more than those we hear. As Andrew Strauss spoke at the end of the series against South Africa, it was noticeable that he at no stage provided a categorical statement to confirm that he had the inclination to continue as England captain. "We'll see how things go," was as definitive as he wanted to be.
More than that, as Strauss outlined the reasons England had lost the series - poor catching and flimsy top-order batting - it was hard to avoid the conclusion that to some extent he was talking about himself.
It is true that none of England's top-order have covered themselves with glory against South Africa, but none have endured the grim run of form of England's captain. In six innings, Strauss scored 107 runs at an average of 17.83 with a top score of 37. He also dropped Hashim Amla early on in his triple century at The Oval.
Such form could be ignored if it was a one-off, but there is growing evidence to suggest it is not. Since the start of 2011, Strauss is averaging just 31.65 in 19 Tests, with only a fine series against West Indies - a series in which he made two centuries - glossing over an uncomfortably grim personal record. In that period, he has also averaged just 17.62 in five Tests - home and away - against Sri Lanka and 25 in three Tests against Pakistan.
In this series, it never appeared that Strauss would make runs. With feet of iron and confidence so drained that he left a straight ball in his final innings of the series, Strauss looked a shadow of the man who made 10 centuries in his first 30 Tests.
Any other 35-year-old batsman with such a record would surely have been dropped already, but such is the respect in which Strauss is held and the contribution that he has made to England's success, that he has been provided every opportunity to rediscover his form.
Strauss' age may be a key factor. While England's selectors have been vindicated in the past for their faith in the likes of Alastair Cook or Stuart Broad, they were players at different stages of their development: young men of obvious talent who the selectors believed would grow into the role. Strauss is a man trying to recapture former glories. It is not the same thing at all.
It was probably fitting that England's last realistic hope at Lord's departed with a run out. England's cricket in this series has been littered with self-inflicted injuries: the nine dropped catches, the pushes at wide balls that resulted in edges to the slips, the decision to drop Graeme Swann at Leeds and, whoever is at fault, a situation whereby the team's best batsman finds himself a pariah in the dressing room.
Even without those issues, South Africa would have proven hard to beat. With them, it is remarkable that England went into the last session of the series with a chance of retaining their No.1 ranking.
That they did suggests, perhaps, that Strauss remains on the right track. So, too, did the obvious spirit which England showed on the last day of this series. Confronted by superior opposition, England continued to attack with admirable pluck and eventually succumbed with just a little bit of their pride restored.
As Strauss put it: "Spirit is not shown by people clapping on the balcony necessarily, it's everything that goes with performing: how people look after each other; the language that is used in the dressing room."
But England's record of six losses in 11 Tests and only one win in four series this year tells a different story. Failure can no longer be dismissed as an aberration. It has become the norm.
The situation provides a new challenge for Andy Flower. Strauss and Flower have worked as a partnership since inheriting their roles in the aftermath of the Pietersen-Moores sackings in early 2009. In many ways, Strauss has become the public face of the partnership and is the more sympathetic man manager; the smooth PR man who provides an acceptable shop window for the harshness of the factory beyond. Without the soft skills of Strauss, Flower could look dauntingly hard and inflexible.
Flower may now be entering new territory. He has to decide whether to remain loyal to Strauss - admirable only if he really believes that Strauss can consistently score runs at the top of the order in Test cricket - or whether he can start again and rebuild a new team.
It is the challenge that befell Duncan Fletcher who, in remaining loyal to the team who served England so well in the 2005 Ashes, failed to regenerate the side as was required and oversaw a sad decline. Flower cannot allow sentiment to cloud his judgement.
For the first time in three Test tours of England, the South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, did not see the demise of an England captain in the middle of the series. The difference, perhaps, was that this time the teams were scheduled to play only three games. But, in the days ahead, it remains quite possible that Smith may yet claim his third England captain.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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