Strauss braced for dog days
Just as the time comes when a much loved but ailing family dog must be taken to the vet, so the time has come to make difficult decisions about the future of Andrew Strauss. The signs can no longer be avoided: Strauss, metaphorically at least, is off his food. His tail has stopped wagging and he can no longer be bothered to chase the postman.
It is not beyond possibility that he could make a full recovery. His current form is a concern, certainly, but he has been down before. It pays not to write him off.
It is worth looking at the statistics. Strauss has not scored a Test century since November 2010 - 16 Tests ago - and has made only one in his last 48 innings stretching back to July 2009. In the last calendar year he has averaged only 25.50 and any suggestion he is surviving on his captaincy record is undermined by the fact that England have lost four Tests in a row. He has passed 50 only twice in 18 innings and England have recorded an opening stand above 31 only three times in the last 17 innings. Nine times they have failed to pass ten.
It looks grim. In a different era - an era of weak management and fickle selectors - you can bet that Strauss would have been axed already. But we live in more enlightened times. These days the selectors take a longer term view. They appreciate that even the best players suffer dips in form and they appreciate that continuity of selection is a key to coaxing the best out of players. The carrot tends to work much better than the stick.
But there is only so long even the most patient selectors can be expected to wait. Strauss' form is, unpalatable though it may be to some ears, compromising England's hopes of competing. Time is running out for him.
That is not to say he is about to be dropped. He will certainly captain at Colombo and, if he goes ahead of the West Indies series in England, it is likely to be his own decision. It may also be worth remembering that the last two permanently appointed England captains - Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan - were both casualties of South African home series. England entertain South Africa again this summer. Might lightning strike for a third time?
It would be wrong to judge Strauss purely by his batting statistics. While he may not be the best tactician, captaincy is about far more than that: it is about leadership, inspiration and unification. In those regards Strauss is exceptionally good and his role in the resurgence of England's cricket cannot be overstated. Besides, he has been in a similar position once before: on the tour to New Zealand in 2008 he had gone 15 Tests without a century and looked almost unrecognisable from the pleasing left-hand batsman who had scored a century on debut. He was probably within one innings of being dropped when he responded with a century in Napier that revitalised his career. If England persist with him, he may well repay their investment.
After all, his long-term record remains good. Unlike Mike Brearley, who failed to score a century in a 39-Test career, only five men (Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Geoffrey Boycott, Ken Barrington and Graham Gooch) have scored more than Strauss' 19 Test centuries. But Jack Hobbs' past record is excellent, too: it hardly guarantees his performance in the next Test. The concern is that Strauss' run of poor form has been so prolonged that it represents a terminal decline.
There is no obvious reason that should be the case. He is 35 and remains fit. It is not as if he is suffering abject failure, more that he is struggling to translate those good starts into meaningful contributions. And he is not the only man struggling: Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have endured even more grisly Test tours.
England should not stick with Strauss simply because they are unsure of their alternatives, however. There are other options. Jonathan Trott could shuffle a place up the order - he has, in effect, been opening the innings anyway - allowing England to draft any one of several contenders into the middle order. Opening candidates are less obvious, but Hampshire's Michael Carberry, who is now restored to health and scoring runs by the bucket load, and Varun Chopra, who has scored three first-class double-centuries in the last calendar year, including one in Sri Lanka, are viable options.
Captaincy alternatives now exist, too. The way Alastair Cook grew into the role in the UAE was immensely encouraging and suggested that, when the transition comes, it need not be as painful as it might have seemed only a few months ago.
That is not to say that Cook will be vying for the role. The respect with which Strauss is held by his team borders on the reverential: personal ambition does not come into this.
Indeed, no-one wants to stick the knife into Strauss. No-one wants him to fail or depart the international game under a cloud. Not even his opponents, who recognise the dignity with which he has led and the control he has exerted over a team that can, at times, become somewhat excitable.
Andy Flower, England's coach, recognises the qualities of Strauss, but Flower did not reach the top through a surfeit of sentiment. He will not be afraid to take a tough decision if he thinks the time is right.
My view? I would stick with him and allow him to go on his own terms. He knows the situation. He knows his stats and he knows that the team need him to contribute more. He is a fellow abounding with positive qualities and is surely wise enough and selfless enough to recognise when the time comes to step down. I fear it may be soon, but I hope I'm wrong.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo