May 3, 2012

Failures will strengthen Strauss' resolve

Questions about his place in the team are quickly forgotten if he scores runs and/or the team wins again. Not that he can afford to flatline in either department for long

At the beginning of his book on captaincy, Mike Brearley quotes from a letter he received soon after being recalled to lead England in the summer of 1981. "There is an old Italian proverb: if you want to know that a fish is bad look at its head," it says, supporting the view I put forward on these pages last month - that a cricket team is created in the image of its captain.

This is by no means a unilateral view. Indeed, the idea that captaincy is overrated is frequently put forward by players who were never captain. Clive Lloyd may have suffered from this because he had such a remarkable collection of talent at his disposal, though judgements that are not especially in favour of Lloyd tend to come from elsewhere rather than from within. Sir Donald Bradman gets little rap for his captaincy but this may be in relation to his batting.

I wonder why so many cricketers want to be captain. Ego, to a degree: we like to be elevated above the norm. Of course, we think we know best and like to be in charge. We prefer stimulation to inactivity and we harbour an inherent pastoral instinct. There is a great sense of achievement in getting the best from others and in creating some sort of legacy. And lifting a trophy is better than watching someone else do it. But there are downsides too. Graham Gooch used to say, "When we win we played well, when we lose it's my fault!" Gooch was not a natural but he became a sympathetic captain and exceptional at leading by example.

The most awkward part of the job is that for all the kudos, you still have to roll your sleeves up. A football manager can read the riot act because he doesn't play. Cricket captains have to bat, bowl and field, and thus are publicly and repeatedly reminded of their own mortality. Was there ever anything more excruciating than watching Kim Hughes resign from the Australian captaincy in tears? Such a brilliant cricketer stripped so bare.

Recently Andrew Strauss said how much he hated the fact that his own players had to defend him at press conferences during the winter tours. They were as concerned by the witch hunt as he doubtless was. He may have felt undermined by this in public, but in consolation, he knew that he had the players on his side.

My feeling was that he made a mistake retiring from one-day cricket last year. Teams that are performing well have a rhythm and a change of leadership can upset it. Captains who are allrounders need form in at least one aspect of their game. Two English summers ago, Strauss batted indifferently during the Test matches but England won the series comfortably and he smashed it round the park in the one-day games. You could not help but see the freedom of mind and spirit in those innings. He retired from one-day cricket for an unselfish reason: that a new captain should take the team forward to the next World Cup. But he was starting to get good at the one-day game and may not have grasped the knock-on effect that becoming entirely dependent on Test matches could have on his own mental state.

Cricket takes so long, there is so much thinking time and much can go wrong. Losing massively to Pakistan in the UAE will have hurt Strauss deeply, and he had hours to ponder the long, slow death. At the core of Pakistan's commitment was vengeance for their humiliation in England in 2010. England were not well enough prepared and the captain didn't score runs. Many teams target the opposing captain, particularly if he bats at the top of the order. England's bad starts in the UAE exposed the middle order to technical questions that confused them.

I wonder why so many cricketers want to be captain. Ego, to a degree: we like to be elevated above the norm. We think we know best and like to be in charge. We prefer stimulation to inactivity

Far from making Strauss wonder if he should stand down, the failures will have strengthened his resolve. Questions about his place in the team are quickly forgotten if he scores runs and/or the team wins again.

Not that he can flatline for too long in either department. People have said it is a peculiarly English thing to pick holes in something successful. Sure England were Test cricket's top dogs and Strauss had played the main part in that, but they were losing heavily to an inexperienced Pakistan team with a so-called mystery bowler who England had played a whole series against only 15 months earlier. Then the first Test was lost in Sri Lanka, and four on the bounce is a bad look. It was reasonable for the media to ask questions about the performance of both captain and team. Neither is above the law, though the headlines leaned towards extremism. As soon as England won and Strauss scored runs - which was the next test - there was no carcass to feed from.

England are lucky to have an outstanding captain whose many strengths include staying calm at demanding or intrusive moments. He may be first among equals in this regard. Whether he deserves a place in the team for leadership alone is an arguable point. Certainly Brearley was chosen for this reason (though he first played for England in 1976 as a batsman only), but he was an exception in the modern era (along with Chris Cowdrey, who led England once in 1988). The idea is a hangover from the days of amateurs and professionals and has probably passed us by. The spotlight is too intense. Strauss knows that and would not want a sinecure.

Australia have always selected a captain from within the team; that way his place is justified. But a longer rope is given to their chosen ones than to leaders in other lands. Mark Taylor, an outstanding captain in every way, was a good example of this. It is why Australia have had so few captains. The selectors choose well and back their man. In contrast, England have tended to chop and change - the late '60s and late '80s were testament to that - though the age of central contracts has led to greater stability in this and other decision-making.

I doubt Strauss was surprised by the attention surrounding his loss of form because it coincided with the team losing. Given that England were clinging to their No. 1 ranking, he may have felt let down by the haste of the vultures' swoop, but he knows the terrain and how best to navigate it. It's not that complicated. He has a good team, so he had better score the runs that justify his ability as an international opening batsman. Otherwise, look out.

Former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas is the host of Channel 9's cricket coverage

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • P Subramani on May 5, 2012, 11:12 GMT

    Allison_Brie's thinking is on very logical lines. Just a few observations however. Ajmal was unplayable in the middle east series because of the dry conditions and the pitches apart from the doosras and teesras that he flummoxed the Englishmen with.Shane Shillingford is more of a Lance Gibbs type of bowler who has massive turn and bounce.He also sneaks in his version of the arm ball on occasions. But England's advantage will be the weather when it comes to playing Shillingford in May and June. But more than that England should worry about the West Indian pace attack which could be pretty good in English conditions.Much as well as Cook and party have done in Australia and in England against India last summer,I am not sure they are good in conditions which are bowler friendly.In India later the weather will be very much to England's liking and India's bowling looks ordinary at the moment.But strange things happen when India plays at home.Suddenly India becomes a different team altogether

  • Mujtaba on May 4, 2012, 14:10 GMT

    The Ajmal in England in 2010 and the Ajmal in UAE in 2012 were vastly different bowlers. He has evolved as a bowler over the years, and the nature of the pitches in UAE obviously helped him as well. The English batsmen should find some form against the WI in familiar conditions, and their next test will come against the SA pace attack, followed by the tour of India. In my opinion, the likes of Cook, Trott, KP and Bell will experience a successful tour in India because the tough experiences against Pakistan and SL should serve them well in the long-term. In addition, the Indians don't possess a potent Test attack, hence, this is England's best chance to put their sub-continent demons to rest. Straussy might find some form against the Windies, but the Saffers could potentially put an end to his career. Watching him over the winter, one gets the feeling that his days with the bat are numbered.

  • Sello on May 4, 2012, 14:04 GMT

    The Saffas are coming this winter and i hope that Strauss becomes the third England captain to retire in the hands of the South Africans

  • Arshad on May 4, 2012, 13:18 GMT

    Mark: Hope you will also write an artilce in the near future, on batsmen who are considered ugly style-wise but who still look so beautiful to watch batting...players like Chanderpaul, Strauss et al.

  • John on May 4, 2012, 9:01 GMT

    @Buggsy on (May 04 2012, 03:15 AM GMT) Still maintain that England weren't brave selectionwise. The "batting depth" theory is nonsense when everyone was out of nick. For me it depends on how much input he has selectionwise. If he had little input then I'd point the finger at Flower , if Strauss had a lot of input re selection then to me he must take some of the blame for that. I agree his onfield captaincy was fine and he can't be accounted for each individual failure. What he (or someone) can be accounted for is picking the same batsmen who lost us test after test in the UAE and SL. And even though we won the last test in SL , I'd say it was as much to do with a weaker bowling attack. Had Ajmal and co been bowling at us we'd have lost that one too IMO. I still think Strauss is the right man for the job because I feel Cook would be next in line and he would be no more ruthless with underperforming batsmen than Strauss

  • Luke on May 4, 2012, 3:15 GMT

    Look, England lost the Pakistan series because the batting as a whole was complete rubbish. Aside from a good dressing down about shot selection - which should have come from the coach anyway - no amount of leadership would have saved them. Strauss may be struggling for runs, but he's still an exceptional captain and deserves better treatment by his own media.

  • Andrew on May 3, 2012, 23:47 GMT

    The way I would imagine things are is that Strauss obviously has the full support of the playing group & management, but he'd be on the radar with the selectors. So to put a stop to the negativity, & be able to retire on his own terms, a ton against the WIndies would achieve that. A mediocre series against the WIndies & the Saffa series will feature Strauss's as the main sub plot & all else will be inconsequential. The heat will not be as intense if Eng win, (assuming mediocre scores), but if they lose, I am not sure if even a Strauss 100 will stop the inevitable axe or retirement announcement. Anyways - its all conjecture, as valid with Strauss as it was with M Taylor, or Ponting or even S Waugh. The funny thing, this is the first time in ages it has happened to an England captain - they usually just get the boot by now! Heaven help Strauss if they lose a test to the WIndies, IMO - there's a 100 not far around the corner for him, but he is in decline.

  • rob on May 3, 2012, 23:07 GMT

    England fans grew accustomed to good starts and scorelines that read 1/230 or similar. Its very hard to lose a cricket series if you consistently make brilliant starts. The confidence it gives the rest of the batting is a key ingredient to a good middle and finish and, hey presto, 500+ on the board. .. take the great starts away and doubt tends to percolate down through the batting order. If you start to get consistently poor starts it quickly becomes a serious problem. .. no wonder Strauss, as an opener and captain to boot, is in the spotlight. .. personally, I think his time is pretty much up and I can't see him going much past the return Ashes next year but he may, yet again, prove me wrong. ..

  • John on May 3, 2012, 16:10 GMT

    @jmcilhinney on (May 03 2012, 10:14 AM GMT) ctd re - replacing a batsman with a bowler in UAE - I see it differently. By continuing to pick the same underperforming batsmen , it is saying to the batsmen that no matter how badly you perform your place is cemented - and I know that they weren'/t deliberately underperforming. All I see it as saying is that we think this may be a better form of attack and even if it was seen as admitting that they were likely to continue to struggle , it's not like they showed any eveidence throughout the series to the contrary. Also by playing an extra seamer it reduces the workload of Anderson and Broad and we saw how ineffective Broad was when injured in the 1st SL test. I know he had an injury going in which is why I felt it essential to add Finn or Bres at expense of Bell so we should now see what happens when you go in with only 2 pacemen and 1 gets injured. Personally I thought Monty was hugely unlucky to lose his place and the opposite with Bell

  • John on May 3, 2012, 15:54 GMT

    @bigwonder on (May 03 2012, 12:22 PM GMT) The ECB are very protective about the amount of cricket our test players play. To be fair there were some Indians who were saying Ind were injured/tired from IPL when they lost the test series in Eng. I don't buy that as the IPL happened way before India toured Eng and Ind played a series vs WI in between where they rested their players. The thing is that even if Strauss wanted to play IPL , no IPL team would touch him. No one touched Swann at 400k and he's the best OD T20 bowler in the world and yet Jadeja who is rated at 38 in bowling and unrated as a batsman went for 2mill. Bopara didn't even get picked up for 100k so even those who do try for IPL - very few get picked despite being members of the number 1 T20 side in the world. Also when I look at some of the bench warmers at IPL , I feel it might be a waste of time. Alf Thomas is a decent T20 bowler and (unless he's injured) has somehow fallen out of favour at Pune.

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