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