September 16, 2009

Strauss for the title

It's hard to look beyond England's captain when you're picking the top cricketer of the last 12 months

Just when we thought it was safe to spend the month moaning - about the increasingly palpable shortcomings of 50-over cricket, the advent of the umpire review system, the invasiveness of drug-testing, post-Ashes fatigue, the English weather, Shane Warne's absence from the Sky Sports commentary box - along comes a timely reminder that our obsession can be, y'know, fun.

For all their randomness, and often flagrant disregard for justice, annual awards are just that. Fun. To take them too seriously, as an official arbiter of quality, is to invest them with far too much credibility. Their value is that they give us a chance to take stock, to reflect on a passage of time before it melts into that endless trail of dimly remembered events. Which is why, even though most of the final decisions will probably be forgotten before I delete the email revealing them, the announcement of the contenders for the 2009 ICC Awards exerted a hold of some fascination when I opened my inbox on Tuesday morning. Especially when it led to ruminations over the World Test XI, for what it tells us about the game's evolution.

It certainly says much for the gusts of change that the inaugural ICC Test XI, named just five years ago, featured no fewer than six men who have subsequently retired from the five-day fray - Matthew Hayden, Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist, Chaminda Vaas, Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie. Of the remainder, moreover, only two, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis, are legitimate claimants for inclusion in the 2009 XI - and neither ought to make it.

Indeed, based on performances between August 13, 2008 and August 24 this year, only Kumar Sangakkara of the 2007 XI is in with a strong shout of making October's side. Granted, injury (Brett Lee, Kevin Pietersen) and lack of opportunity (Ryan Sidebottom bowled just 59 overs) have played their part, but given that Shakib-Al-Hasan, the most consistent non-keeping allrounder, has been more important to Bangladesh's cause than Kallis has to South Africa's, it is indicative of this trend that less than half last year's XI - Graeme Smith, Mahela Jayawardene, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sangakkara and Dale Steyn - rank among this term's leading contenders. In other words, maintaining form is becoming an increasingly rare art. A reflection of the players' rising workload in an era of overkill? Give me a likelier cause.

In the period under scrutiny, a Test XI based purely on statistical consistency should read: Gautam Gambhir, Smith, Kumar Sangakkara (wkt), Younis Khan, VVS Laxman, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera, Shakib, Mitchell Johnson, Graeme Swann and Peter Siddle. With Shakib supplying Bangladesh's first such candidate, this team comprises no fewer than eight nationalities, and more Sri Lankans - even without Murali - than Australians or Indians: a most welcome progression from the dynastic tyranny that gave us, every year from 2004 to 2007, a ICC World Test XI numbering at least four Australians. Load in some context, without which statistics are merely bones, and an equally potent side could be proffered: Andrew Strauss, Phillip Hughes, Michael Clarke, AB de Villiers, Ramnaresh Sarwan, JP Duminy, Matt Prior (wkt), Stuart Broad, Harbhajan Singh, Dale Steyn, Ishant Sharma. Eight of these, encouragingly, have yet to complete their third decade.

Post-Stanford, post-Pietersen v Moores, Strauss took the reins when English cricket was looking sicker than John Cleese's ex-parrot. That it is now widely perceived to be in polite if not rude health is no mean feat

Because there were only six Test nations and tours were infrequent, it would be grossly unfair to draw comparisons with an XI drawn from performances over the same period 50 years ago, containing as it would players from just Australia, England and West Indies - Geoff Pullar, Colin McDonald, Rohan Kanhai, Garry Sobers, Ken Barrington, Joe Solomon, Richie Benaud (capt), Wally Grout (wkt), Fred Trueman, Wes Hall, Brian Statham. On the other hand, an XI representing the form horses of 1988-89 - Mark Taylor, Shoaib Mohammad, Richie Richardson, Javed Miandad, Martin Crowe, Robin Smith, Jack Russell (wkt), Malcolm Marshall, Arshad Ayub, Terry Alderman and Courtney Walsh - could be culled from six nations. Among those who played at least five Tests, a 1998-99 XI - Taylor, Saeed Anwar, Rahul Dravid, Daryll Cullinan, Kallis, Steve Waugh, Alec Stewart (wkt), Anil Kumble, Stuart MacGill, Walsh, Glenn McGrath - would accommodate seven nations. Eight is still a spread of talent to cherish, reflecting as it does the most gloriously unpredictable (aka competitive) period Test cricket has ever known.

The past year, after all, has seen South Africa win in England and Australia, Australia win in South Africa, England beat Australia and run India closer than the then-brand leaders managed, and West Indies beat a major player for the first time in six years, all while Sri Lanka have been clambering ever closer to the summit. The reluctance of teams to tour Pakistan remains as understandable as it is regrettable, but are these not reasons to be unfearful?

That Taylor and Walsh feature in both the 1988-89 and 1998-99 XIs is another indication, you might imagine, of our fast-changing, getting-bloody-hard-to-keep-up times. The picture is rosier than you might imagine. Of that 1998-99 side, Dravid and Kallis are still prominent; all the rest have retired. Which members of either of the aforementioned 2008-09 XIs will still be regaling us with their undimmed wares 10 years hence? Broad, Duminy, Hughes, Shakib and Sharma are all young enough, certainly. In the shorter term, it is far from fanciful to picture six batsmen and as many bowlers from the top 10s in the current Test rankings still strutting their stuff productively in 2014. But only if the Future Tours Programme undergoes some serious pruning.

THE OSCAR OF OSCARS, nonetheless, will go to the ICC Cricketer of the Year, the shortlist for which extends to just four: MS Dhoni, Johnson, Gambhir and Strauss. Graeme Smith's omission is decidedly curious, and not solely because he would be my choice. Not only is he worth a place in the World Test XI on runs alone, he also led South Africa to hoodoo-trashing series wins in Australia and England. The only plausible excuse is that the latter rubber was actually won on August 11, 2008, and hence comes narrowly outside the selectors' remit. As it is, given the nominees we have, it is fiendishly hard to look beyond Strauss.

England's captain now occupies decidedly rarefied air. Among batsmen who have led their country in upwards of 15 Tests, only five - Don Bradman, Jayawardene, Sobers, Graham Gooch and Lara - have averaged more than Strauss's 56.14. That he relishes the responsibility is encapsulated still better by the fact that, like Gooch (whose average went up 22.79 as captain) and Jayawardene (up 18.58), he has been considerably more productive with the stripes than without, lifting his mean by 15.10. That he has been England's most prolific and reliable run-maker since he reclaimed the reins for the tour of the Caribbean, at a time of huge upheaval and poor collective form, is testimony to a rare fortitude.

Lest we forget, in Napier just 18 months ago, Strauss was poised to slink back to county cricket, never to return. It was, he relates in his forthcoming book, "the only time in my life I have struggled to sleep". The key to his subsequent 177 was a first-innings duck: "With only one innings left I felt it was too much to expect to pull it out of the bag, so I was just going to enjoy my last innings for England." In other words, he relaxed. Encouraged by Paul Collingwood, he also reclaimed the cut and the pull, the once-fruitful strokes his cautious, fretful self had sheathed. As Kris Kristofferson so deftly put it, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

"More than anything, performing in those circumstances made me think that when the going gets tough, that is what motivates and brings out the best in me," reflects Strauss. "And, when you are armed with that knowledge, it gives you huge confidence for difficult times in the future." Nothing particularly earth-shattering, sure, but this realisation was no less valuable for its familiarity. Come The Oval last month - and yes, it does seem a sight longer than that - England were pulling the Ashes out of the bag. That they bounced back not once but twice in that series - from the near-disaster of Cardiff to victory at Lord's, from humiliation at Headingley to final triumph at The Oval - can be attributed to many factors, but none was more important, surely, than the tone set by Strauss, at the crease and in the field.

There is a bit of him in each of the other contenders. Like Gambhir, Strauss possesses the mental fibre and inner confidence to stare down adversity and drag a career from the precipice. Like Johnson, he can dominate opponents. Like Dhoni, he is a leader by vivid example. None of those rivals, though, has had quite as much to contend with this year as Strauss. Post-Stanford, post-Pietersen v Moores, he took the reins when English cricket was looking sicker than John Cleese's ex-parrot. That it is now widely perceived to be in polite if not rude health is no mean feat. Just don't mention the words "limited" or "overs" in close proximity.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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