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Andrew Strauss came so close to the perfect homecoming today. The poor chap has not had the best of years - he's been out of form with the bat, out of favour as a captain and, for the past month of limited-overs cricket, out of the reckoning altogether. Take his recent omission from the 30-man squad for the Twenty20 World Championships - it was notable only for the deafening indifference with which the announcement was greeted. For a man who, last summer, seemed to be Michael Vaughan's natural heir, his demise has been sudden and somewhat mystifying.
This time last summer, international cricket was still very much a bed of roses for Strauss, just as it had been from the moment he marked an unforgettable debut with 112 and 83 against New Zealand on this very ground in 2004. From that moment on, every challenge was greeted with insouciance - three chanceless centuries on a glorious trip to South Africa; two more in the Ashes triumph against Australia (for all that Shane Warne claimed he was his "bunny"). Another hundred followed in the heat and dust of Mumbai as England thrillingly squared their last series against India, then two centuries in four matches as captain against Pakistan, in a series that posterity records as a 3-0 win.
Strauss's tally at that stage of his career was 10 centuries from 30 Tests - brisk accumulation by anyone's standards. Ten from 41, which is what that figure now reads, is far from shabby either, although Strauss's anxieties were telegraphed by the shot that led to his downfall, a premeditated charge against Anil Kumble that would have been a stumping had he not got a thin nick to slip. It was a most uncharacteristic dismissal. Only once before, against West Indies in his debut summer of 2004, had Strauss fallen in the nervous nineties. When in form and in favour, his ability to play within his limitations has been what sets him apart from his peers. For all the valuable runs he got to his name today, his equilibrium hasn't yet been fully restored.
"It was a slight rush of blood to the head, and it was frustrating walking back to the dressing room," said Strauss. "I would have taken 96 at the start of the day, but it was hard work - it wasn't a free-flowing innings by any means." Even so, he should have been dismissed for less than half that tally, after Dinesh Karthik dropped one of the sitters of the season - a looping drive to point that flicked his cap off as it burst through his fingers.
|Only once before, against West Indies in his debut summer of 2004, had Strauss fallen in the nervous nineties. When in form and in favour, his ability to play within his limitations has been what sets him apart from his peers. For all the valuable runs he got to his name today, his equilibrium hasn't yet been fully restored|
"Mentally I was walking back to the dressing room, berating myself for playing such a terrible shot," said Strauss. "Fortunately he dropped it, but I've had a few slices of bad luck over the past few months, so this was a big slice of good luck. People say they even themselves out - sometimes you think they don't, but generally they do."
Like Vaughan, Strauss's international bow has been whittled down to a solitary string this summer, and at this stage he's unsure whether it's a blessing or a curse. "No-one likes to miss any cricket for England," he said. "You want to play in every game you possibly can. But I was feeling a little jaded after the Durham Test match, because I've been doing this for 18 months non-stop. It's not a physical tiredness at all, more a question of the mental stresses and strains. They can wear you down, and you can also get worn down by not being in great form."
"Going into this match I felt as relaxed and positive as I had for a long time," he said. "I don't know if that's because I'd had a bit of time out or because I got some runs against India in the warm-up [80 for England Lions at Chelmsford. But I felt comfortable and really refreshed after this three-four week break. I've had some time with my county, and time to think about what it is I actually do when I bat well. Sometimes when you're playing all the time, you don't have time to reflect as you would normally do.
"A first-innings score is a pre-requisite at Lord's," said Strauss of the match situation, after a cluster of late wickets left England sizing up a target of 450 to 500. "It's a good wicket to bat on, with a bit more zip than I've seen for a while, and a bit of swing as well. The Indians stuck at it pretty well - you're not going to get them bowling at 90mph around your head, but having said that, they'll test in other areas. For [Anil] Kumble to get two wickets on the first day when there was nothing in it for him was a good effort. I'm sure he'll be eyeing up some more wickets as the Test progresses."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo