India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 1st day December 11, 2008

Strauss serene after the storm


Andrew Strauss: 'I was as relaxed as I've felt going into a Test for a long time' © Getty Images
 

When safety and security is a team's over-riding priority, there are few cricketers better equipped to instil that warm fuzz of sanctuary than Andrew Strauss. On a day when England's cricketers were escorted to the stadium by a posse of jogging commandoes, and guarded from the rooftops by an eagle's nest of sharpshooters, Strauss's 13th Test century stood out for its normality and chancelessness. Frill-free accumulation has rarely screamed such defiance.

Strauss is a man for whom the word "phlegmatic" might have been invented. When he is at his very best, as he was today, he bats not so much in a bubble, but as the very eye of the storm - that little oasis of calm around which all hell might be breaking loose. You wouldn't know it to judge by his demeanour. Eight of his previous 12 hundreds have set England up for victory - including his most recent innings in India, at Mumbai in 2005-06 - and he's never yet reached three figures in a losing cause. Thanks to Zaheer Khan's superb manipulation of the old ball, that particular record might take some rescuing now, but given that England's expectations at the start of this game were zero, Strauss has ensured they've been exceeded already.

Arguably, in terms of situational pressure, today he had it easy. Compared to his hurried debut against New Zealand in 2004, or the raw thrills of his maiden Test tour to South Africa in 2004-05 or his first taste of the Ashes the following summer, this scenario was a doddle. A flat deck, a sparse crowd, and a subdued start from India's seamers gave him the raw materials from which to construct England's vital first innings. The only demons to speak of were those that might, understandably, have been buzzing around in his subconscious.

Not for this man, however. Of all the England players whose opinions were canvassed ahead of their return to India, Strauss's views were among the most sanguine. "I made up my mind pretty early that I'd be coming back," he said. "It was the right thing to do, and I didn't have much mental anguish. It was important that we come out and play, and in a way, it was an advantage because I had no mental baggage. Once I got in, I felt as comfortable as I have in a long time."

In any ordinary Test match, England's close-of-play scoreline would invite accusations of an opportunity missed. Two-hundred-and-twenty-nine runs in a day is too few in the modern-day context, and five wickets is too many. But when you bear in mind that England have not stood in the middle with a red ball since August, the upshot could have been far worse. As it was, Strauss's only false move was the scuffed chip that led to his downfall six overs before the close.

Much of the same could be said of his sidekick, Alastair Cook. Watching the pair of them bat, it was hard to believe how little cricket they had played since the defeat of South Africa in Kevin Pietersen's captaincy debut at The Oval. Both men have been found out in the brave new world of Twenty20 cricket - Strauss scratched his way around Antigua during Middlesex's ignominious Stanford Series campaign, while Cook was deemed worthy of selection in a solitary ODI at Cuttack last month, after being dragged halfway around the world as a centrally-contracted drinks waiter.

Cook, however, is another man who knows a thing or two about leaving one's mental baggage back in the hotel. His Test debut, like Strauss's, resulted in a fifty and a century in consecutive innings, though his performance was even more extraordinary, given that it was achieved in the broiling heat of Nagpur after a 10,000 mile eleventh-hour journey from the Caribbean. The manner in which the two players combined in today's gloriously old-school first session was a reminder that Test cricket is essentially a mental discipline.

Strauss did not set out to dominate, as he did (almost by stealth) in his 2004 pomp, nor to be dominated, as Zaheer did to him so effectively in 2007. Instead, he played each delivery with the unhurried diligence of a Reg Dickason security report - taking his time to reach his decision, and assessing all his emergency evacuation options before committing. He didn't score a single run on the off side until after the lunch interval, and his only attempt at out-and-out aggression came when he twice fetched Amit Mishra from outside off stump through midwicket for four - a premeditated assault that served a disruptive purpose, but nevertheless caused teeth to be sucked among his onlookers. England, in keeping with the current team mindset, were at their happiest when batting inside their comfort zone.

Cook proved that point amply with the horrid hoick that led to his downfall - his only six in Test cricket came from a top-edged pull at Wellington last winter, so who knows why he thought he could double that tally today - but Pietersen's sorry cameo was the clearest available evidence. For all his myriad talents the captain has only two gears, overdrive being the second of them. By his own admission he is no fan of subcontinent pitches - he finds them too slow for the level of self-expression he brings to his game - and the shot which led to his downfall had been telegraphed from the moment he marched to the crease.

The situation, dare one say it, would have been tailor-made for Ian Bell - a proven performer on the subcontinent, and a player who just loves to bat without having to give any thought to extenuating circumstances. With Strauss serene alongside him, the stage was set, and Bell's first aggressive stroke was a sublimely executed on-drive, the sort of stroke that only the select few can produce as a risk-free option.

Sadly, before Bell could get going, he was beautifully deceived by Zaheer's long overdue return to the fray. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's decision to ignore his strike bowler throughout the afternoon session looked at first like an oversight, but he could not have planned it better. By the time he returned after tea, the ball was 57 overs old and ready to hoop around corners. The first ball zipped away from the right-hander, the second jagged wickedly back, and suddenly, serenity was a thing of the past. That England had enjoyed even a glimpse of calm waters, in the circumstances, was remarkable.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo