Strauss urges focus ahead of Indian summer
There was a peculiar atmosphere at the Rose Bowl on the eve of the third Test against Sri Lanka. The unfamiliarity of the venue contributed to a strange sense of detachment, as indeed did the persistent drizzle that limited the team's practice and left players and journalists alike milling around in the pavilion foyer. For all the history that will be made on Thursday when England inaugurates its tenth Test venue, it was hard to escape the feeling that the summer had reached a hiatus - a calm before the Indian storm that is looming next month.
No doubt the England team would wish to view this challenge differently, because as they've discovered to their cost in the past, any such notion tends to be corrosive, especially against opponents as traditionally under-estimated as Sri Lanka. After all, England have not beaten them in a Test series for the best part of a decade, and five years ago they came a cropper at the exact same stage of their three-match series, squandering a 1-0 lead as Muttiah Muralitharan tore through them at Trent Bridge.
Nevertheless, as England welcome back their attack leader James Anderson after a side strain curtailed his game in Cardiff, Sri Lanka are facing up to the loss of their captain and leading run-scorer Tillakaratne Dilshan - with Kumar Sangakkara's reluctant return to the helm adding a frisson of political intrigue to their preparations. They aren't exactly a team in crisis just yet, but England have encountered happier tourists in recent years.
From Andrew Strauss's point of view, however, England are five days and 20 wickets from wrapping up a 2-0 series win, and nothing that has happened or been spoken since the end of the Lord's Test need deflect them from their singular purpose - especially at a venue that has never before hosted a five-day contest, and will therefore involve a certain element of the unknown.
"All our language throughout this series has been to not look too far ahead and not beyond each Test match," said Strauss. "We come here with a good chance of finishing this series off on a high and winning 2-0, but Sri Lanka have shown enough in the first two games to show they are not a pushover by any means.
"We're going to have to work hard and both sets of players will have to adapt to the conditions here, which we're not entirely sure how they are going to be," he added. "In one sense home advantage of knowing the wicket here is slightly negated, so we're going to have to work hard and earn the right to get on top."
Anderson's impending return leaves England with a dilemma of sorts, given that one of the three pacemen who under-performed in the draw at Lord's will have to make way in the starting XI. With 25 wickets in his last five Tests, Chris Tremlett's position is secure for now, but neither Steven Finn nor Stuart Broad has anything like the same sort of job security.
"It is always a tricky decision," said Strauss. "I thought in the last game at Lord's all our bowlers bowled some good spells at times, and some less good ones as well. We have to look at the wicket in the morning and decide what the best attack will be for this game, but this is a good position to be in. Even though we weren't at our best at Lord's, we had some good spells."
The probable man for the chop is Finn, who recovered from a shaky start to pick up four wickets in Sri Lanka's first innings at Lord's, but Broad's recent Test form is the cause of some concern for the England management. A succession of injuries limited his participation in both the Ashes and the World Cup, and so far this series he has managed six wickets at 48.00, at a loose economy rate of 3.52.
"We always want our bowlers to be taking wickets so from that point of view it is a concern, but he's done a lot of good things," said Strauss. "He's gone past the bat a lot and the fact is we've got a good squad of bowlers and they're all being pushed hard to make sure they keep performing.
"The challenge for Stuart is to keep improving, but you also have to realise with bowlers that sometimes one guy will get the wickets, but the other bowls better. You have to look beyond how many wickets they've got, you have to look at how many balls they get in the right area."
The other man with a point to prove right now is the captain himself. Kevin Pietersen's confident 72 at Lord's alleviated the pressure on his position at No. 4, but with scores of 20, 4 and 0 in his three innings of the series to date, Strauss is aware that his own form is now under some scrutiny - especially after he was extracted by the left-armer Chanaka Welegedara in both his innings in the second Test.
"I'm not sure it is right that someone is always under the spotlight, but that is the fact of it," Strauss admitted. "I was frustrated with my returns at Lord's, but it is the nature of the beast as an opening batsman. Sometimes you get a couple of good balls early.
"But I'm very comfortable with my own game and I'm very comfortable with us as a batting unit, with six out of seven being in great fettle in the first two Tests. But now it is my turn to come to the party, there is no doubt about that."
Strauss's batting form as England captain was exceptional in his first few outings, as he recorded four scores of 142 or more in eight Tests, including a matchwinning 161 against Australia at Lord's in 2009. But since that innings he has reached a century on just one occasion in 33 attempts, despite passing fifty 11 times.
"You can over-think these things a bit, but it is right I've scored a lot of fifties and not turned them into hundreds and that is something I'm determined to change," he said. "[My conversion rate] has been one of my strengths and I need to find it again. As an opening batsman if you can get big hundreds then it sets the side up pretty well and that is the challenge for me.
"But you're never going to have all seven batsmen firing at the same time. That's unrealistic," he added. "I've just got to make are that I do everything I can to get back in the runs and get a hundred. This is Test cricket and there are hundreds of guys in county cricket who want your job, so you have to do everything you can to be successful."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo