England v New Zealand, 1st Test, Lord's May 12, 2008

Strauss's journey comes full circle


Andrew Strauss: back to form and reflecting on past glories © Getty Images
 
It seems hard to recall right now, but there was a time barely two months ago when Andrew Strauss's Test career was hanging by the slenderest of threads. A run of 25 innings without a century had led to his omission from the tour to Sri Lanka before Christmas, and when he was contentiously recalled three months later in New Zealand, his unconvincing form extended into the first two Tests.

One more strike, and Strauss would undoubtedly have been out. Instead, he responded with a career-best 177 in the series decider in Napier, and suddenly it's as if the doubts have been banished for good. The confidence that carried him to ten centuries in his first 30 Tests has flooded back into his body language, and on Thursday, when he reacquaints himself with his favourite ground, Lord's, and his favourite opponents, New Zealand, there's every reason to anticipate a sense of déjà vu.

For it was on New Zealand's last Test tour in 2004 that Strauss announced himself to the cricketing world with a stunning debut performance. He was summoned to the squad on the eve of the match following a freak knee injury to Michael Vaughan, and responded with twin scores of 112 and 83 to condemn New Zealand to a seven-wicket defeat, and ultimately a 3-0 whitewash.

His efforts triggered a momentous chain of events. The former captain, Nasser Hussain, whose crass running between the wickets deprived Strauss of his second hundred of the match, realised that his place in the middle order would be untenable once Vaughan had recovered, and retired immediately after sealing the win with a memorable century of his own. Strauss went on to be England's lucky mascot, playing a significant part in their seven consecutive Test victories of that summer, as well as their subsequent triumphs over South Africa away, and of course, Australia at home in 2005.

"Over the last week or so, I suppose I've had a chance to think about what happened four years ago, and it's pretty inspiring," said Strauss during a media session at Lord's on Monday. "It was a complete change or fortune for me. I had been playing for Middlesex against Scotland on the Sunday, then I was playing for England and scoring a hundred on Thursday."

For most mortals, such a step-up in class would bring with it at least a bout of the jitters, but not so with Strauss. "It was a step into the unknown," he said. "I was in great form, but I said to myself, let's see what happens. You can probably beat yourself up, thinking you might have your poles knocked over first ball, and that can make you feel jumpy and nervy. I just said I'm going to the next level, let's see what it's like. If I hadn't been in such great form, it might have been harder for me to do that."

The ease of his arrival astounded most seasoned observers, but in Strauss's mind, he was merely being swept along by events beyond his control. Had Vaughan, during a net session three days earlier, not twisted his knee while sweeping at a 19-year-old spinner called Zac Taylor, the opener's vacancy might never have arisen, and Strauss might still be waiting in vain for his chance.

"It's incredible to think what might have happened if those set of circumstances hadn't occurred," he said. "It's bizarre how much luck plays a part in our careers, but I suppose if you let yourself think that luck is important, you realise you can't control what happens."

Such an attitude would have been handy for assuaging the only blemish on Strauss's debut - the one inflicted by his partner, Hussain. England were chasing a stiff 282 in the final innings of the match, but were sitting pretty on 143 for 2, when Hussain set off for a non-existent single and left his junior partner stranded.

"Funnily enough I remember the hundred particularly well, but I try to blot the run-out out of my memory," said Strauss. "I remember prior to that, Nasser came up to me and said: 'Look, we've really got to up the run-rate here, to give us a chance of chasing the score.' I thought he was talking a load of rubbish, but I was in my first Test and I thought I better just nod and say okay. Then five minutes later he was sprinting down the wicket having whacked one straight to cover point."

All of the above is now ancient history, and yet, it is strangely pertinent to Strauss, as he embarks on the first Test of what must feel like a second coming. After battling with his self-doubt, the fear of failure was abandoned in Napier, and now Strauss can look back to look forward, and remember just how it was he was able to transform himself into one of the most prolific openers the game has ever seen.

 
 
'It's bizarre how much luck plays a part in our careers, but I suppose if you let yourself think that luck is important, you realise you can't control what happens' - Andrew Strauss reflects on the circumstances of his Test debut, four years ago this month
 

"It is an amazing set of events to look back on, and quite motivating as well," said Strauss, "not so much in terms of performances, but in reconnecting with that frame of mind. I feel as fresh and enthusiastic and motivated as I have at any time in my career, and I think, looking back, missing out in Sri Lanka gave me an opportunity to take a step back. From then, every time I've been involved in the England team I've been very keen just to enjoy the occasion, and appreciate how lucky I am. If you combine that with good form, it puts you in a pretty good frame of mind to score some runs."

It's a far cry from Strauss's mindset 12 months ago. Following a tricky tour of Australia, his fortunes failed to improve even when a weak West Indies side arrived in the country, and his nadir arrived at Old Trafford in the third Test, when he mustered scores of 6 and 0 while his team-mates were filling their boots. But the mark of the man is his response to adversity, and now that he has turned the corner once again, Strauss insists he wouldn't trade the experiences for anything.

"It's important you go through those moments," he said. "You hate it at the time, but it makes you more determined not to go through it again. You learn a lot. None of us like being out of form, and none of us like dealing with the consequences of being out of form, but in terms of actually developing as a hardened international cricketer, it's an important process to go through.

"When you're out of your comfort zone, it's not just how you perform, but how you treat people close to you and how you act around your team-mates. You might be pretty low yourself, but you can't display that to your team-mates because you've got to still be a positive influence on the team."

To that end, Strauss can sympathise with his captain, Vaughan, whose turn it is now to endure the same scrutiny, following his lean trot in New Zealand and his dreadful start to the summer with Yorkshire. "It's frustrating having to perform under the microscope, but it's a fact of life in international cricket," said Strauss. "The really useful players in an international team are the ones who can absorb that pressure and come up with the goods. You know that, when the pressure's on in a different circumstance, they'll be able to do it. Michael's proved that time and time again, and he'll do it again."

Lord's on Thursday would be a fine place to start, although it's clear that in some quarters, thoughts are beginning to shift to more distant contests - starting with the South Africans later in the summer, and then of course to the Australian challenge in 2009. Strauss, however, remembers how it was that the Aussies were toppled three years ago, and it wasn't by allowing the team's focus to drift from the more immediate tasks.

"There's something about England, that we are expected to beat New Zealand all the time," said Strauss. "But you can't take any team lightly and I don't think we'll do that. New Zealand have got a lot of young players looking to do something similar to what I did on my debut. They'll want to grab the bull by the horns and score a hundred in their first match at Lord's. They'll be extremely motivated and exuberant and enthusiastic, and that can have a huge effect on a team." He should know. He's been there, and he's been around the block in the four years since.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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