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