August 24, 2011

Being Andrew Strauss

There are more worthy goals ahead of England's captain still, but will he have the appetite for them, or the fortitude to keep self-doubt at bay?

Looking for a snappy soundbite to encapsulate the collectivism underpinning England's march to the top of the Test charts? Cue, as ever, Graeme Peter Swann. Halfway through the final Test he declared that the batsman he would pay to watch was not KP or Belly or Cookie, nor Sachin, VVS or Mark Waugh (whom he cited when asked last year), but Ravi Bopara.

"Ravi Bloody Bopara?" was the kneejerk reaction. Then the logic dawned.

This was doubtless a genuine statement of admiration - on song, however rarely he has harmonised to date at the highest level, the Essex man can dissect attacks with delicious disdain. But there was far more to it than that. Here was a public display of faith, a spot of rah-rah boostering for an uncertain colleague; one, moreover, that ran a considerable risk of making the booster appear more than a trifle daft. Then again, Swann always did buy into the Adam and the Ants creed. At the end of a Test year that has comfortably exceeded the nation's fondest imaginings, the most pressing question is whether Andrew Strauss, too, believes that ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

How we love putting ourselves into the shoes of the blessed and the rich and the renowned. How would we cope with their lot? A lot better, naturally. Being Andrew Strauss? On the face of it, it sounds a lot better than being John Malkovich, but I'm not so sure. Is there a worse kind of mental torture than leading a winning cricket team when personal form has fled? Imagine that sort of rollercoaster. Imagine the guilt.

Nobody, in this regard, has suffered quite like that most celebrated of Middlesex-and-England skippers, Mike Brearley, for whom consistent collective success and pandemic respect ran hand in hand with an anaemic Test average. "There were stages in my career," he confessed in The Art of Captaincy, "when I despaired of motivating myself, let alone others: when all I wanted to do was crawl into anonymity, rather than bounce back." He went to a psychotherapist, and "toyed" with hypnotherapy. One of the sources of conflict, he believed, lay in his dual role as "superior" and "partner": at Middlesex, Wilf Slack admitted to him that opening with a captain of such towering intellect inhibited him. Air cleared, Slack found self-expression easier, and ultimately won Test recognition.

For all that his final Test average for 2011 is 28.72, even worse than it was for 2007 - when he was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka and later came within one cheap dismissal of the end of the road - Strauss, as captain, hasn't sunk quite as low as Brearley. As horrendously as it began, the summer has not been without encouragement. Recklessly eager to recapture his poise ahead of the season's main event, he turned out for Somerset against the Indians and made good, aggressive runs in each innings. Ejected by Zaheer Khan in his only spell of the Pataudi Trophy series, Strauss's briefest residency in six knocks spanned 84 minutes; tormented by Sri Lanka's southpaws, he'd never endured that long in May or June, just once surviving even 15 minutes. He may also have derived a small jolt of pleasure from the fact that only once did he fail to outlast his now-illustrious opening partner. A small adjustment in his mode of address saw the full face of the bat presented with far greater alacrity. In every instance, the hard yards were done.

That's why the heart bled for him at The Oval. Shortly before his dismissal, approaching his fourth hour at the crease, he threw off those self-imposed chains and launched three lusty cover drives. Each was sublimely executed, guilty of nothing more than minute imprecision and bad luck - especially since the tourists' ground fielding met the challenge. As it is, his last 20 Tests have brought one century and 973 runs at 32.43, returns rendered all the more conspicuous by the gluttony of his team-mates.

Now five free months gape ahead, a veritable age. Four winters ago, in search of renewal, he took himself off to New Zealand and played for Northern Districts. Now, as a father, he will be far less inclined to leave family and hearth. Instead, there will be time to wallow and dwell and ponder - oodles of it. It could weigh heavy.

How long can the allure of further accomplishments defeat the renewed fear of failure that accompanies acceptance that one's powers may be on the wane? Once the crowds disperse and the clamour subsides, Strauss will be asking himself a number of searching questions

He cannot lack for goals, whether inner or imposed by statistically inclined columnists. At The Oval, he overhauled Peter May's haul of victories as England captain (20); now only Michael Vaughan (26) bars his path to the toppermost plinth. Three victories in the winter's five Tests would elevate his winning percentage to 58.54, usurping Brearley, the best by any Pom who has tossed metal for country on 25 or more occasions. Best of all, another four centuries would take him to 23, beyond Hammond, Cowdrey and Boycott.

He will also want to ensure England remain atop the Test rankings, a stiff task with Pakistan (away), Sri Lanka (away), South Africa (home) and India (away), all due to be faced before the end of 2012. He might also fancy overseeing a national record of nine consecutive series victories, or even becoming the first man to lead England in three victorious Ashes rubbers since WG.

He would certainly do well, on the other hand, to be mindful of an Ashes curse, albeit a mild one: of the seven England captains who have regained the urn since the Great Depression (as opposed to the current merely Big Depression, that is), only Vaughan, Len Hutton and Brearley had the presence of mind and good fortune to quit while they were ahead. Douglas Jardine and David Gower were sacked within two years - if for vastly differing reasons - and Vaughan's knee gave way; only Gower and Ray Illingworth led another Ashes campaign, neither a winning one. Indeed, only Hutton, Brearley and Strauss himself have won a second rubber against the oldest enemy. Among their six Australian counterparts, by contrast, Bill Woodfull, Richie Benaud, Allan Border and Ricky Ponting all did so, while both Chappells stepped down of their own accord.

By any measure Strauss has reached the top of the greasy pole. He has certainly achieved immeasurably more than he would have envisaged during those unsettling boyhood relocations from South Africa to Australia and England, let alone when he took guard in Napier three and a half years ago, livelihood on the line. He already has two grand and historic Ashes triumphs to tell his grandkids about, not to mention being the first Englishman to hoist that murderously medieval ICC mace. He has made centuries when they matter (four against Australia, each at crucial junctures, three apiece in India and South Africa). No England pair have added more runs together than the 4635 he and Alastair Cook have racked up. Not even those with a PhD in curmudgeonry would blame him for feeling he may have scaled enough mountains for one lifetime.

"You're a long time retired." So runs the clichéd refrain. As a rationale for staying in the bubble, deep in the comfort zone, it is both pragmatic and limited, persuading many to stagger on long past their sell-by date. But how long can the allure of further accomplishments defeat the renewed fear of failure that accompanies acceptance that one's powers may be on the wane? Once the euphoria has died down, once the crowds disperse and the clamour subsides, Strauss will be asking himself a number of searching questions, safe in the knowledge that he has earned the right to supply his own answers. "Can I dominate bowlers again and justify my place as a batsman?" "Will the lads lose respect for me if I struggle?" "Will my captaincy suffer?" "Can a team whose unity of spirit and purpose has so ably and nobly compensated for a lack of obvious individual greatness continue to be such a powerful whole despite a malfunctioning part?" Above all, he will question his appetite. Is it still strong enough to override the fear of dark days, of sharp decline and rude headlines, of ridicule? An email to R Ponting Esq might not go amiss.

Shortly before his recall for that Headingley epic 30 summers ago, the greying Brearley read an article in the Times Literary Supplement (no wonder Slack felt intimidated) in which the author argued that, for sportsfolk, there was "nothing like a sudden upsurge of maturity to impair the will to win". This jarred with the 39-year-old sage (and trainee psychotherapist). What havoc, he reasoned, might be wrought by "an upsurge of the various kinds of immaturity"? Brearley had the nous to retire from the international game after that titanic 1981 series, sufficiently mature to recognise that, realistically, it couldn't get any better. Is Strauss, the most level-headed and least egocentric England captain I've ever met, sufficiently immature to crave more glory? Or, as someone with a desire for fresh challenges - and, one strongly suspects, the wherewithal to meet them - does he have the maturity to resist?

If I were him I'd like to think I'd be grown-up about it. Then again, even though there are two decades between us, I still get an incurably boyish kick out of ballgames and would dearly love to see a bloody decent chap with (distant) Jewish forbears outstrip Hammond, Cowdrey and Boycott, so berating Strauss for maintaining his enthusiasm would be the very height of hypocrisy.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lee on August 27, 2011, 20:32 GMT

    The clock is ticking on Strauss's career. However he still is vital to England for his captaincy, not perhaps as a tactician, but for the respect the team has for him as a leader. That is worth another ten on his average. If there was a great opening batsman being kept out of the side it might be different, but there is not. He needs team targets. The first is South Africa, to defeat them would nail any doubts about England position as number 1. Then he can set his sights on the double header Ashes. To end as the captain that led England to four Ashes victories. What more motivation could any man need?

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2011, 10:00 GMT

    honeymonster your youth betrays you . Good and successfull as Strauss is he is way short of Hussein and light years away from Stewart . Strauss has the benefit of playing in era when investment and focus on the national side has never been greater and the opposition has never been worse of less focussed . Nass and Alec experienced the polar opposite . Stewart was a outstanding as an individual while Hussein was a bit of a twit at times but both were immense cricketers who would have thrived in the stuctured organized world of English cricket today !

  • Samuel on August 25, 2011, 18:53 GMT

    Oh, and to answer your question @ Mcgrath/Dravid/Flintoff - I'm only in my early twenties, so I can't go too far back to compare him against many others! Better than Stewart certainly (who was captain when I started getting into cricket), and I'd rate him above Hussain - calmer, a more solid batsman and decent enough tactician. Vaughan was much more pro-active in the field, but between 2003-2005 he had a more explosive pace attack to call on, which probably made his life a whole lot easier. Strauss is certainly the best for me since I've been following England - Vaughan's injuries, his batting form as captain and the fact we lost to India and South Africa at home towards the end of his tenure means he comes in second. As I said though, I can't go back to the likes of Brearley and Gooch, so the sample side is limited.

  • Samuel on August 25, 2011, 18:42 GMT

    @ Sir_Freddie - I agree. It's taken England years to find a solid No. 3, and now we have two in the ranks in Trott and Bell, why risk it? Trott opened against Bangladesh on the last tour there and somehow managed to look uncomfortable, so keep him at three. If there is one place England are relatively short on talent coming through, it's probably in the opening positions - Hales is the only youngster I can think of. Carberry's probably still in the selectors thoughts in terms of reserve opener, but he's 30, so not exactly one for the future. Lyth has had a dodgy season and Adams is in the same situation as Carberry. There may well be others I've missed (is Root an opener by trade?) but compared to the talent waiting in the wings in pretty much every other department, opening is one in which we're not stocked. Why replace Strauss if there's nothing better out there? I feel there might be one final run of form in him, like we saw in South Africa in 2004/5.

  • Richard on August 25, 2011, 10:13 GMT

    I think more pressing than Strauss' lack of form is Morgans. He doesn't look secure and only seems to score when it is least needed, although to be fair coming in at 6 in this team thats most of the time. I don't think he is test class and I think Steyn and Morkel would utterly destroy him. Balanced against that though, he is good against spin, which will be needed in the next 2 years abroad. I would rather blood Taylor in a low pressure slot at 6 away from the gaze of massive home crowds, let him feel his way into test cricket in a good side, a la Ponting, and give him plenty of time. Or, if we come against a real raging turner, drop Morgan, move all of Prior, Bresnan, Broad, Swann and Anderson up one and pick Monty Panesar.

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2011, 7:52 GMT

    It has been evident for quite a while that strauss is in the bottom 2 worst batters in the side. Only morgan has a lower average then him, even Prior and Tim Bresnan have Higher averages then him. Strauss never scores daddy hundreds and of late isnt even passing 30-40. Strauss played some county and tour games this year and he scored hundreds and looked great, so he's not in bad form, he's just not as good as the other batsman. England would be better off with Trott or Bell Opening, they have both made double hundreds and have a lot more ability to bat long periods. Bell is not used to his full potential if he's at number 5. He scored 235 at number 3, this wouldnt be possible at number 5, with the form the top order is in he would never have time to pile up those sort of runs. A big bonus of having Bell or Trott opening is the Left - Right hand opening combination. James Taylor could then come in at number 5 in the order, leave Morgan at 6. Cook can captain.

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2011, 7:42 GMT

    can he or england live up to the hype ?? win convincingly away from home , beat Sa next year and then whitewash the Australians and call it a day .

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2011, 1:42 GMT

    Andrew Strauss is a great captain and a great man. He averaged 38 against India, not world beating but hardly rubbish. A couple of rash shots aside and he'd have had a ton instead of 87 and at least a fifty instead of 40. Captaincy ruined Vaughan as a batsman and its to Strauss's credit that he goes out positively to give the team a good start. Providing his average stays around 40 I'd like him to stay captain until after the two back to back Ashes series. I think he's good enough to stay until then. Cook is currently a run machine, why go out of our way to put more pressure on him by making him captain earlier than necessary?

  • Dummy4 on August 24, 2011, 19:59 GMT

    He could join the list of English captains retired by Graeme Smith if he carries on till next Summer... joining Vaughan and Hussain... just a thought?

  • Nick on August 24, 2011, 19:42 GMT

    After calling for substitutes in cricket and the return of timeless test matches, this completes Rob Steen's spurious logic trilogy. Despite the low average this season, Strauss has looked good in his strokeplay. On other days, the luck and judgement may have been with him. He's been out of runs but not, conversely, out of form. As for time to step down, I would think that rides on two issues: Whether he is getting enough out of the job and the results he gets. The heir is apparent, it is a question of whether the heir is ready to step into the role. Speculating about what is going through Strauss' mind, which is what this article largely consists of, is a pointless excercise. Comparing Brearley in '81 is also wrong. Try comparing Brearley in '79, when he felt that he had done the job well enough and stood down the first time.

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