December 7, 2009

Taking the lead

Sam Pilger
Not long ago Andrew Strauss thought he would never play for England again, let alone captain them. Now, in a post-Ashes glow, he has the command of players and public alike

It was at the start of last year, in a sparse and basic hotel room in the New Zealand country town of Palmerston North, a place John Cleese once said anyone not brave enough to commit suicide should visit, that Andrew Strauss believes he has never felt lower.

After being cast aside by England, his plan to resurrect his Test career by playing cricket on the other side of the world had not been working. He was utterly miserable, struggling to sleep, and questioning whether he even wanted to play for England again.

"I had been out of form for a long time and kept thinking, 'What am I doing this for?' I was away from my family and nothing was happening, I was banging my head against a wall," he reflects. "I really began questioning my motivation and thinking, 'Should I bother to try to get back into the England team?' because I wasn't sure I actually missed playing for England and I was preparing myself to never play for them again. I thought this could be it."

This was new territory for Strauss. For the first three years of his Test career he had led a charmed life, playing his cricket in almost perpetual sunshine; a century on his Test debut at Lord's, winning his first eight Tests, becoming an Ashes winner in 2005 as the only player in the series to score two centuries. But by the autumn of 2007, Strauss had gone 13 Tests without a century, and had endured a run of poor form he acknowledges had lasted eight months, so he was left out of England's tour of Sri Lanka and replaced at the top of the order by Michael Vaughan.

This is how he found himself trudging across New Zealand playing for Northern Districts, in what he calls "a difficult mental state". He was surrounded by team-mates he liked but did not really know, and feeling highly embarrassed that, as the lauded overseas Test player, he had failed to contribute many runs to the side.

This would prove to be his personal nadir. Two days later he managed to grind out a century in his final game for Northern Districts against Auckland before joining the England squad in Christchurch for the series against New Zealand. "It was like being back in a family. People were pleased to see me, I felt comfortable and I realised I had missed it after all," he says.

But at first Strauss continued to struggle, scoring only 97 runs in his first four innings, and the self-doubt began to consume him once more. On the eve of the third and final Test, in Napier, he recalls thinking that another failure would mean the end of his Test career. "I was beginning to accept I would now be only a county player."

A duck in the first innings meant the pressure increased, but just in time the old Strauss reappeared in the second innings, and by the end of the third day he had reached 173 not out. He recalls returning to the hotel fatigued and with a warm glow and sense of contentment so great he was asleep by 8.30pm. He would add only four more runs the next day but it was enough, he was safe.

"The catalyst for everything was actually the belief that it wasn't going to happen, I had almost given up. I told myself to give myself a break and enjoy what I expected to be my last innings for England. I let go of all the pressure and it then became so much clearer, the power of thinking positively about yourself, and from that moment everything began to change for me."

Only 17 months after suffering the overwhelming loneliness and self-doubt in that Palmerston North hotel room, Strauss found himself on a stage at The Oval lifting the Ashes, as captain, leading scorer and the man of the series, bathed in sunshine and surrounded by his admiring team-mates.

"I have always believed for players to respond you need to do three things: lead by example, don't ask anything you wouldn't do yourself, and be honest at all times"

"As I went up to pick up the urn I remember thinking to myself, 'Can you believe it? Here I am, this has actually happened.' You dare to dream but here I was reaching forward for it."

Since that innings in Napier, Strauss has been reborn as a batsman and scored more Test runs (1769) and more centuries (seven) than anyone in the world.

Strauss's story is England's story; together they made the same journey from despair to redemption and managed to triumph in a seemingly impossible short period of time. England's Ashes success was born in Strauss's own deeply personal experience, which he used as a model to inspire his players, an ostensibly ordinary group, to find something within, to play above themselves and overcome the then leading Test side in the world.

Though he had been declared a future England captain as early as his Test debut five years ago, and been a successful caretaker against Pakistan in 2006, he had to suffer the indignity of twice being overlooked for the position on a permanent basis, first in favour of Andrew Flintoff's brief and disastrous reign in Australia and again when Kevin Pietersen jumped the queue last year.

"When Michael Vaughan resigned I thought I had a chance but the selectors wanted one captain for all forms, so they chose Kevin and I began to accept I was never going to be captain. Little did I know what was about to happen."

What happened, of course, was Pietersen's captaincy imploding after his rather ill-judged attempt to unseat Peter Moores as England coach, and so at the start of this year, amid the smouldering wreckage of his failed coup attempt, Strauss had to step over the bodies and tidy up the mess.

"I knew it was bad but I didn't know it was that intense. There was an undercurrent [between Pietersen and Moores], you could sense something. When there are cracks in the relationship at the top between captain and coach it feeds down to the rest of the team."

Has the experience changed Pietersen at all? "He has probably learned that saying the first thing that comes in your head, or being completely honest [doesn't help] but essentially he is the same bloke and I wouldn't want him to change," says Strauss.

"I still maintain he did what he thought was right for England. It wasn't about him. It was his genuine belief that things needed to change. I never held it against Kevin for trying to change things but it wasn't pleasant for anybody to be around."

England were unable to exorcise this bad feeling immediately and the Strauss era would get off to a horrible start: losing to West Indies by an innings and 23 runs in Kingston, after being bowled out for 51 in their second innings. It left Strauss "disconsolate and depressed".

It was at a team meeting after this humiliation that Strauss believes his captaincy properly began. "It was the first time that the players opened up and really spoke about how they were feeling, their insecurities and what they felt about their team-mates. Andy Flower did an amazing job. I feel that was the breakthrough, and after that moment things went far better."

Strauss and his predecessors: as captain and batsman
Player As M Runs HS Ave 100s/50s
Andrew Strauss As captain 17 1572 169 56.14 6/4
As player 50 3694 177 41.04 12/13
Kevin Pietersen As captain 3 262 144 52.40 2/0
As player 54 4647 226 49.96 16/15
Andrew Flintoff As captain 11 565 89 33.23 0/6
As player 79 3845 167 31.77 5/26
Michael Vaughan As captain 51 3170 166 36.02 9/13
As player 82 5719 197 41.44 18/18
Nasser Hussain As captain 45 2487 155 36.04 5/17
As player 96 5764 207 37.18 14/33

England would draw all their remaining Tests in the West Indies before snatching back the Wisden Trophy with a 2-0 early summer series win against the largely apathetic West Indians to gain some modest momentum ahead of the Australians' arrival.

"I have to be honest. As a captain I was concerned going into the Ashes. It was a step into the unknown for me. I had always been incredibly impressed with how Michael Vaughan had been in 2005, the poise he had shown. I was hopeful I could do something similar, but I didn't really know, so it came as a nice surprise."

It was possibly overshadowed by Flintoff's long farewell tour, and then latterly by the youthful celebrity allure of Stuart Broad, but the truth is the Ashes were Strauss's triumph, furnished both by the sheer amount of runs he scored and by his ability to inspire his players.

Throughout the summer Strauss led by example, scoring 474 runs, over 200 more than England's second highest scorer, Matt Prior, and overall managed that rare trick even Vaughan could not pull off, of improving as a batsman with the captaincy. His career Test batting average is 44.62 but as a captain it is 56.14.

"As much as you can, look after your own game; that helps everything," he says. "My batting is still reaping the benefits of that experience in New Zealand last year. Being out of the side made me more determined than ever to enjoy it all, to forget the nonsense and stress and not allow myself to become sour about things."

So far Strauss's success as a leader has been rooted in his ability to radiate a calm authority to his players, refusing to panic even after the embarrassments in Cardiff and Headingley during the Ashes.

"I have always believed for players to respond you need to do three things: lead by example, don't ask anything you wouldn't do yourself, and be honest at all times. If you exhibit those simple traits, people will want to help you succeed.

"I was very keen to build a strong ethos, so there were a number of things we did to foster that, one of which was going to Flanders, and others behind closed doors. I hope they all helped the players step out of their comfort zones and deliver in an Ashes series, which is hugely empowering."

Behind the well-mannered façade lurks some real steel in Strauss. "I can be quite ruthless if I need to be. It is all about doing the right thing."

What has been the toughest decision he has had to make so far? There follows a long pause, so I suggest possibly dropping Flintoff for the Headingley Test this summer. "No, that wasn't a tough decision at all actually.

"Looking back, I might have been bolder at times, and even before the Ashes I wouldn't have declared like that in Antigua again. I know now you have to be more bold if you want to take wickets."

Strauss has the admirable trait of always wanting to spread the praise for regaining the Ashes, constantly stressing it was a joint enterprise with England's team director, Andy Flower.

"Andy is an excellent communicator to people. He is very honest and he has some very good ideas on how to challenge people," he says. "He has the respect of the team and what I like about him is he never speaks just for the sake of it.

"There was an immediate rapport between Andy and me, and we have a very strong bond. The relationship is based on mutual respect. We enjoy pushing each other's buttons and playing devil's advocate to each other. We enjoy decisions, rather than finding them tough."

Strauss is talking in a suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane. There is little stardust about him, more an appealing ordinariness. He is straightforward and likeable, dressed smartly in jeans and a blue blazer as if he has stepped from the pages of a Boden catalogue.

He is launching his new book, Testing Times, but in many ways he remains resolutely old school, almost the anti-celebrity in contrast to Flintoff and Pietersen.

"This time since winning the Ashes my life hasn't changed at all, which is good," he says. "I was always uncomfortable at becoming a celebrity after 2005. I didn't play the game to be one, I didn't like it, and so this year I certainly didn't miss the bus tour or anything like that."

Two months since the Ashes, and after the one-day series and the Champions Trophy in South Africa, Strauss finally feels as if he has the time to cast his mind back over the defining summer of his life.

"My mind always comes back to three very strong memories, which I will always carry with me," he says. "There was the Lord's Test. I got those runs, which I remember fondly, but the best moment was in the dressing room afterwards. It was very emotional, more emotional than The Oval. It was at that moment we really started to believe we could win the Ashes.

"Then there was Stuart Broad's spell at The Oval, where you could feel the pendulum beginning to swing decisively our way, and finally lifting the urn at The Oval. In a funny way I was concerned it might be a bit of an anti-climax, because people make so much of it, but it was far better than I could ever have imagined, because it was the final Test of the series - we had been humiliated at Headingley and there was so much emotion at claiming the final wicket."

Strauss's face lights up talking about the Ashes but he looks tired and admits he has been left exhausted by the relentless cricket in recent months and is keen to disappear on holiday with his family to his wife's native Australia.

On his return England will head to South Africa and begin to pursue his aim of becoming the No.1 Test side in the world. Such a grandiose statement is obligatory after winning the Ashes, when calls for a steady rise to third place do not sound so compelling. Does he really believe it is possible or did he get carried away after winning the Ashes?

"Oh, certainly, we can become the No.1 Test side in the world under my captaincy but we are going to have to play some exceptionally good cricket. There is a big difference in winning the Ashes and becoming No.1, which you gain by playing well home and away and in varied conditions. You have to have great balance and depth in your squad and crucially be sure about your side." Pausing, he adds: "We are nowhere near that at the moment.

"I have to be realistic. I would love to tell you we are going to beat South Africa and retain the Ashes in Australia but, if we are going to do that, we will have to get a hell of a lot of things right. The players need to focus on the team coming first. That is something we have worked very hard on. We need them to keep buying into that.

"South Africa are the best team in the world, so it won't be a walk in the park, but I definitely think we can win down there and that excites me. Put it this way, I am now in a better position to know what we need to do as a side. I have always felt, away from home we need to find ways to take wickets when the ball doesn't swing, which is crucial, and as a unit we are going to have to bat exceptionally well."

Strauss has banished the fraught, self-doubting figure of early last year in New Zealand and grown into a captain of substance.

"I have far better mechanisms to deal with everything," he says. He talks about an inner calm and a sense of tranquillity in his life and, especially when he bats, refusing to allow problems to affect him. "Now I replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I know it isn't rocket science, but if you feel things getting on top of you, the idea is to think about anything that makes you happy, like family, your golf swing, your bank balance... "

He stops and smiles before adding, "I suppose after this summer I now have the best thing of all in the memory bank if I ever need to use it in the future: winning the Ashes."

This article was first published in the December 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here