August 15, 2012

The master of being himself

Andrew Strauss doesn't pose, shout, or try to shove all his players into one mould. Being his own man may just be his greatest virtue
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Andrew Strauss plays his 100th Test for England tomorrow. I was an exact contemporary of Strauss - at school, university and in county cricket. Few predicted he would play 100 Tests. Indeed, Strauss himself would have laughed at the idea when he was starting out as a cricketer. Owais Shah, not Strauss, was the teenage Middlesex prodigy. Not that Strauss minded not being the centre of attention. Waiting for the right moment, biding his time - that is the hallmark of his distinguished career.

Some sportsmen declare their hand at the outset. Graeme Smith always said he wanted to captain South Africa when he was still a kid. Strauss, in contrast, is not someone to reveal his hand so lightly. Did he always have deep ambitions that were hidden by his self-effacing English reserve? Or did he only realise by increments - as he gradually worked his way through the field - that he could go so far, as a player and a captain? I've never been sure of the answer. Perhaps he isn't either.

In one crucial respect, Strauss has never changed. He has always had the social and psychological confidence to be himself. As a player, he has never puffed out his chest in phony displays of patriotic guts and determination. As a captain, he is more interested in calmness and balance than show-off field placings or macho arm-waving.

Being yourself is the most underrated virtue in sport, as we've learnt once again during the London Olympics. Some sports psychologists have argued that athletes could unlock hidden potential if they adopted the same uber-relaxed, super-confident pre-race routine as Usain Bolt.

I take the opposite view. The lesson of Usain Bolt (apart from the obvious one: be more talented than everyone else) is the profound value of being yourself. Watch again the few seconds before the 200 metre final, as the sprinters are introduced to the crowd. Bolt, of course, does his usual showman act - clowning and gesturing, looking at once intimidating and relaxed.

The revealing thing is that all the other sprinters awkwardly followed his example, trying to project the aura of Bolt without the underlying conviction. The American sprinter Wallace Spearmon stared into the camera lens as he shouted with bristling machismo, "My time, my time!" - all of which did nothing to persuade anyone that it was his time, but merely reinforced the truth that it was Bolt's.

Like Bolt, a very few lucky cricketers - such as Sir Vivian Richards or Ian Chappell - are naturally ultimate alpha males. The rest have to reach an accommodation with the fact that they are extremely good performers without being kings of the jungle. The most common mistake is to copy the wrong example - to try to be something you're not - like the sprinters who try to act like Bolt without being Bolt.

During the period of Australian supremacy, England teams wasted too much energy trying to behave like Australians, as though the skills would follow naturally from the style. But it doesn't work like that. Being yourself is always the best policy.

Strauss has been the master of being himself. Like Mark Taylor, he has never tried to hide the fact that he is a courteous, measured and controlled person. He has never got sucked into behaving like an alpha male show-off. That innate confidence has allowed the England team to grow up.

The most effective captains do not impose their own personality on the group; they encourage the team to develop its own authentic voice. Strauss celebrates diversity rather trying to shoehorn all players into one model. "I wouldn't want to captain a team in which everyone is like me," he has said. It gets to the heart of his captaincy.

And yet, for all his achievements, Strauss takes to the field in his 100th Test under undeniable pressure. He has just endured one of the most difficult spells of his captaincy. On the field, England have suffered a poor 2012 in Tests. Whatever happens at Lord's, they have failed to win a home series against a great rival.

Off the pitch, the estrangement of Kevin Pietersen from the England management (more on this in a moment) has been an uncomfortable circus for everyone involved. And it would be only human, for a player about to win his 100th cap, to regret that the Pietersen issue has dominated the lead-up to such an important Test.

Strauss has been the master of being himself. Like Mark Taylor, he has never tried to hide the fact that he is a courteous, measured and controlled person

But paradoxically, when he looks back at his England career, Strauss may be grateful that he entered his 100th Test with so much riding on the result. Far from being an easy lap of honour, Strauss' 100th Test is exactly that - another test of character. And sport - as Strauss knows very well - is at its most rewarding when it is most challenging.

****

A fortnight ago I added a second, shorter item to my column to accommodate an instinct I had about Kevin Pietersen. It seemed to me, looking from the outside, that something big was about to happen. I had no evidence beyond a deep-seated hunch. Pietersen had been looking increasingly distant and hurt, and the England management seemed to be losing patience.

But I noticed years ago that Pietersen often plays at his scintillating best when he feels wronged. And he did just that once more. His 149 at Headingley was one of the great innings played for England in the modern era. When it is a case of "KP against the world", he is capable of almost anything.

Is there any way, I wonder, that Pietersen can access that strand of his personality - the resilient individualism and epic self-belief that defined his Headingley hundred - without actually orchestrating a situation where it really is "KP against the world"?

Can't he just imagine life is like that - that he has a giant score to settle with the world - while, in fact, behaving normally, just like everyone else?

I hope so. Because it seems a terrible curse if he must experience genuine turmoil to access his deepest talents.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • POSTED BY on | August 16, 2012, 19:42 GMT

    wickyroy - So beating the Aussies 3-1 in their back garden is winning at home? Strange, I seem to remember Sydney being several thousand miles away from England...

  • POSTED BY SoverBerry2 on | August 16, 2012, 18:12 GMT

    great player! Remember the bad old days...

  • POSTED BY WickyRoy.paklover on | August 16, 2012, 12:12 GMT

    An ovr.ratd captain of an extremly ovr.hypd,ovr.anticipatd bt vry average team,which can't win outside their home

  • POSTED BY PieterJAF on | August 16, 2012, 10:36 GMT

    Excellent, in-depth article, as usual, by Ed Smith. When he refers to alpha-male sports people, these people make up 2% of your top sports people. They will succeed in spite of any "obstacle" that may cross their carefully considered and planned path to success. Although they will have common success factors and mind-sets, all of them are unique in terms of a personal make-up/approach in the public eye. Thus, both Andrew Strauss and Usain Bolt fit into the afore 2%, although they have completely different "public images". Well done Andrew, I salute you, BUT as a proud South African, I cannot wish you success and victory in your 100th test. May the best team win.

  • POSTED BY thalalara on | August 16, 2012, 4:21 GMT

    Good article by Ed Smith, as rightly pointed out key factors to judge a good captain is Calmness & Balance at the center, no doubt its Strauss's forte similar to Dhoni. In terms of deliverable i fell captaincy role is very minimal since it depends on various aspects of the game, for example your best batsmen and your strike bowlers have to deliver the desired results. If they do so captain should not take credit and vice- versa. In simple terms there are no good or bad captaincy its just how he handles the situation at the center as a leader.

  • POSTED BY on | August 16, 2012, 4:02 GMT

    ha ha RandyOz - he's a good enough batsman and captain to smash your boys out of their own backyards in 2010/11... and in 2009... shame Punter or Pup can't even dream of that sort of success against him.

  • POSTED BY ghost_of_len_hutton on | August 16, 2012, 3:59 GMT

    Yep, great call Randy Oz. Current test opening batsmen with averages of 41 or less include Dilshan, Guptill, Peterson, Parananavitana, Taufeeq Umar, Mohommed Hafeez, Powell, Cowan and Watson. Only Sehwag, Gambhir, Cook, Smith and (just) Gayle average over that among today's test openers.

  • POSTED BY Hammond on | August 16, 2012, 3:06 GMT

    @randyoz- Australians know all about timid opening batsmen. They haven't had a good one since Langer retired.

  • POSTED BY zoot on | August 16, 2012, 0:15 GMT

    100 tests is not a massive milestone these days. Looking at the top test run scorers and wicket takers lots of players have made it and Tendulkar will probably get to 200 ! (188 at the moment). Still congrats to Strauss

  • POSTED BY bigdhonifan on | August 15, 2012, 22:38 GMT

    Worst opener in world cricket now with pathetic average of 41.

  • POSTED BY on | August 16, 2012, 19:42 GMT

    wickyroy - So beating the Aussies 3-1 in their back garden is winning at home? Strange, I seem to remember Sydney being several thousand miles away from England...

  • POSTED BY SoverBerry2 on | August 16, 2012, 18:12 GMT

    great player! Remember the bad old days...

  • POSTED BY WickyRoy.paklover on | August 16, 2012, 12:12 GMT

    An ovr.ratd captain of an extremly ovr.hypd,ovr.anticipatd bt vry average team,which can't win outside their home

  • POSTED BY PieterJAF on | August 16, 2012, 10:36 GMT

    Excellent, in-depth article, as usual, by Ed Smith. When he refers to alpha-male sports people, these people make up 2% of your top sports people. They will succeed in spite of any "obstacle" that may cross their carefully considered and planned path to success. Although they will have common success factors and mind-sets, all of them are unique in terms of a personal make-up/approach in the public eye. Thus, both Andrew Strauss and Usain Bolt fit into the afore 2%, although they have completely different "public images". Well done Andrew, I salute you, BUT as a proud South African, I cannot wish you success and victory in your 100th test. May the best team win.

  • POSTED BY thalalara on | August 16, 2012, 4:21 GMT

    Good article by Ed Smith, as rightly pointed out key factors to judge a good captain is Calmness & Balance at the center, no doubt its Strauss's forte similar to Dhoni. In terms of deliverable i fell captaincy role is very minimal since it depends on various aspects of the game, for example your best batsmen and your strike bowlers have to deliver the desired results. If they do so captain should not take credit and vice- versa. In simple terms there are no good or bad captaincy its just how he handles the situation at the center as a leader.

  • POSTED BY on | August 16, 2012, 4:02 GMT

    ha ha RandyOz - he's a good enough batsman and captain to smash your boys out of their own backyards in 2010/11... and in 2009... shame Punter or Pup can't even dream of that sort of success against him.

  • POSTED BY ghost_of_len_hutton on | August 16, 2012, 3:59 GMT

    Yep, great call Randy Oz. Current test opening batsmen with averages of 41 or less include Dilshan, Guptill, Peterson, Parananavitana, Taufeeq Umar, Mohommed Hafeez, Powell, Cowan and Watson. Only Sehwag, Gambhir, Cook, Smith and (just) Gayle average over that among today's test openers.

  • POSTED BY Hammond on | August 16, 2012, 3:06 GMT

    @randyoz- Australians know all about timid opening batsmen. They haven't had a good one since Langer retired.

  • POSTED BY zoot on | August 16, 2012, 0:15 GMT

    100 tests is not a massive milestone these days. Looking at the top test run scorers and wicket takers lots of players have made it and Tendulkar will probably get to 200 ! (188 at the moment). Still congrats to Strauss

  • POSTED BY bigdhonifan on | August 15, 2012, 22:38 GMT

    Worst opener in world cricket now with pathetic average of 41.

  • POSTED BY Cpt.Meanster on | August 15, 2012, 19:36 GMT

    First of all, congratulations to Andrew Strauss for reaching the coveted '100 tests' landmark. It's a remarkable achievement and one that every cricketer aspires to reach by representing his country in test cricket. It's not an easy feat, especially in the modern world of cricket. Fitness, personal problems, travel issues etc., all plague our game. So I commend Strauss for putting in the hard work and dedication for England. He will always be my choice for one of the BEST English captains ever. After all, he lead England to no.1 and back to back Ashes victories. That must not be forgotten by people. It's a shame this milestone has taken a back seat thanks to the ugly KP incident.

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 19:01 GMT

    Strauss always by his virtue one of the individual who will come on to bat and slowly make his way to fifties and hundreds something which resembles to his career progress which slow but steady. It is itself a greatness to be around flamboyant cricketers land be like who you are and Thats the one of the reason he is d one of hall of fames of english cricket who able to retain ashes in oz. And here he comes again on 16 august playing his Th test in quest of retaining England's No. 1 test ranking. Being a Fan of English Cricket (off course after india) I wish him all the best. The way Ed narrates incidents is wonderful feels like it should never end and we keep on reading them . Thanks Ed for such wonderful gift to all cricket lovers we privileged have to you.

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 16:27 GMT

    He is a true gentleman. I think one of the well-liked cricketers all across from the current English crop, unlike the obnoxious Broad, Anderson, Trott and who not. Oh, and how must i forget Mr Ian Bell...

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 16:11 GMT

    A great man and a good opening batsman. Its Strauss' captaincy and his role in taking England to previously unscaled heights that he will be remembered the most for.

  • POSTED BY Selassie-I on | August 15, 2012, 16:01 GMT

    Nice article Ed. Straussy is a stand up guy and people can certainly learn from him. He's been a great skipper for the team, while not doing anything outlandish or forward thinking he has been solid at the basics. Cricfan, this won't be his last test match.. regardless of the result, and I can't imagine that any England fan would say otherwise, even before his 2 hundreds against WI this summer, the only people who were calling for his head were in the media or non-england fans. You can see this by the standing ovation he gets as he walks to the crease, we are all behind you Straussy... lead us to a win at Lords in your 100th test with a blinding innings sir!

  • POSTED BY bigdhonifan on | August 15, 2012, 15:02 GMT

    Just luck. Not a good captain, not a good batsman!!!

  • POSTED BY armourofgod on | August 15, 2012, 14:26 GMT

    Anyway...whatever his qualities are...luck is one of the main contributor in his rise but I'm sure from tomo no more gimmicks of being a captain of no 1 team...pls take your place as last in the table of ranking

  • POSTED BY RandyOZ on | August 15, 2012, 13:26 GMT

    A timid opening batsman with a pathetic average of 41. Yep...a great leader. Born and raised in England (sic).

  • POSTED BY jonesy2 on | August 15, 2012, 13:25 GMT

    typical english cricketer i guess. boring, unimaginative but somewhat productive without worry for the circumstances. had he played for a better team would he have played 100 tests? no. but good on him and great achievement

  • POSTED BY klempie on | August 15, 2012, 12:27 GMT

    We want to read about Biff breaking Border's captaincy record...

  • POSTED BY FreddyForPrimeMinister on | August 15, 2012, 12:03 GMT

    @Nutcutlet - excellent comment and a fine article, Mr Smith. It's difficult to imagine two more different personalities than Strauss and Pietersen but for England to be successful against the best sides, I believe they need both men firing on all cylinders - and "pulling in the same direction", to copy an oft-used quote in this matter. The only issue I have with Strauss's captaincy is that it is often overly defensive and we don't impose ourself as a team in the way that the great WI and Aussie teams did. Far too often we have a man "sweeping" on the cover boundary at a time when we should be going for the kill, having him as an extra slip or short leg. That aside, Strauss is an excellent captain and like Vaughan and Brearley before him, offers a calm influence on those around him. Good luck on your 100th Test, Andrew - and please, please use your management skills to sort out the whole KP issue once and for all and get him back in the side!

  • POSTED BY gandabhai on | August 15, 2012, 11:21 GMT

    When he captained England the first time around on a temporary basis, i thought he did more than a decent job . The selectors didn't see that and gave the job to Freddie & then to KP . They should have given the captaincy then to Straussy . He is an excellent human being and a very good captain , RESPECT .

  • POSTED BY Hira1 on | August 15, 2012, 10:44 GMT

    good luck strauss in most probably his 100th and last match as well, England is certainly going to loose the 3rd test and series as well as their number 1 ranking, some one has to take the blame and this time there is no KP so strauss be ready!

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | August 15, 2012, 10:27 GMT

    Yes, Ed, I'm in total agreement with you. In essence, Strauss knows who he is; what he does well and, just as important, where his limitations lie. These are the marks of a mature adult. Moreover, he's a fine England captain that has an intuitive understanding of Andy Flower - which has been of enormous benefit in contributing to England's recent Test successes. When he's finished his cricketing career he will move into his next phase of life, find his niche & make a success of it: some things are predictable. KP is his absolute opposite in many significant respects. He has little clue who he is; has a temperament that is utterly unpredictable; suffers from bouts of paranoia & can behave like a spoilt child if he doesn't get his way. One day he MUST do some serious work on the psychological weaknesses that bedevil his life, with the help of a counsellor. If he admits that he has issues to address that is an important first step. We must wish AS & KP well. They have different battles.

  • POSTED BY CSpiers on | August 15, 2012, 10:03 GMT

    Strauss hasn't had a good year in tests since 2009, and since that's his only format, shouldn't be people questioning his place more seriously? He seems a good leader, but averages of under 35 for the last 3 years don't speak too well of him.

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 9:53 GMT

    Great captain, fine opening batsman and great ambassador for the game. Deserves every accolade he receives, and has overseen a great era of English cricket.

  • POSTED BY dsig3 on | August 15, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    I really like Strauss. Cant stand England but Strauss is a refreshingly mild mannered leader. He wont say anything controversial, but at least he doesnt seek the spotlight and grandstand. Good for him.

  • POSTED BY Nduru on | August 15, 2012, 9:20 GMT

    Great insight on two very opposite players.

  • POSTED BY davidlister on | August 15, 2012, 8:55 GMT

    Strauss always had a huge advantage in leadership - he carries the ineffable confidence concomitant with membership of the ruling class. The way our country works he is a respect-magnet.

  • POSTED BY olympian on | August 15, 2012, 7:58 GMT

    Strauss: nice enough in a boring way. Mediocre and unimaginative captain who never has a Plan B. Lucky to have confronted a series of amazingly mediocre sides in recent years.

  • POSTED BY CricFin on | August 15, 2012, 7:42 GMT

    He needs to score some runs otherwise this could be his last test match ..he is not good captain as we saw the whole kp saga is g oing on for some time.why this has come o this stage ? Where is man mgmt skill ?

  • POSTED BY vatsap on | August 15, 2012, 6:26 GMT

    Go Strauss. One of the under rated captains and players. Was most ideal to take over from Vaughan, thankfully the English selectors realized their short lived folly for the flashy flintoff/pietersen as captains didn't work. A good landmark for a cool player.

  • POSTED BY Percy_Fender on | August 15, 2012, 5:32 GMT

    My congratulations to Andrew Strauss on the eve of his hundredth Test Match. As the Captain he has taken England to the top in Tests and 20/20s. And even if he has not succeeded in winning the 50 over World cup for England, he has taken them to the No 1 ICC rankings for that format. His highpoint would naturally be the tremendous win against Australia in the last Ashes series down under. He has achieved everything in the calmest possible manner with the kind of dignity and poise one seldom sees these days in the game. Truly a great ambassador for the game and more importantly, England. I cannot believe that just a few months ago his place in the side was not assured thanks to people wanting to pull him down. It does'nt matter if England loses the 3rd Test match and so the No 1 ICC ranking in Tests. Andrew Strauss has done enough to be placed in the same bracket as Peter May. My heartiest congratulations to him.

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 4:58 GMT

    Excellent insight! The bit about KP was probably the best, and most sober piece yet, amidst a sea of drivel

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  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 4:58 GMT

    Excellent insight! The bit about KP was probably the best, and most sober piece yet, amidst a sea of drivel

  • POSTED BY Percy_Fender on | August 15, 2012, 5:32 GMT

    My congratulations to Andrew Strauss on the eve of his hundredth Test Match. As the Captain he has taken England to the top in Tests and 20/20s. And even if he has not succeeded in winning the 50 over World cup for England, he has taken them to the No 1 ICC rankings for that format. His highpoint would naturally be the tremendous win against Australia in the last Ashes series down under. He has achieved everything in the calmest possible manner with the kind of dignity and poise one seldom sees these days in the game. Truly a great ambassador for the game and more importantly, England. I cannot believe that just a few months ago his place in the side was not assured thanks to people wanting to pull him down. It does'nt matter if England loses the 3rd Test match and so the No 1 ICC ranking in Tests. Andrew Strauss has done enough to be placed in the same bracket as Peter May. My heartiest congratulations to him.

  • POSTED BY vatsap on | August 15, 2012, 6:26 GMT

    Go Strauss. One of the under rated captains and players. Was most ideal to take over from Vaughan, thankfully the English selectors realized their short lived folly for the flashy flintoff/pietersen as captains didn't work. A good landmark for a cool player.

  • POSTED BY CricFin on | August 15, 2012, 7:42 GMT

    He needs to score some runs otherwise this could be his last test match ..he is not good captain as we saw the whole kp saga is g oing on for some time.why this has come o this stage ? Where is man mgmt skill ?

  • POSTED BY olympian on | August 15, 2012, 7:58 GMT

    Strauss: nice enough in a boring way. Mediocre and unimaginative captain who never has a Plan B. Lucky to have confronted a series of amazingly mediocre sides in recent years.

  • POSTED BY davidlister on | August 15, 2012, 8:55 GMT

    Strauss always had a huge advantage in leadership - he carries the ineffable confidence concomitant with membership of the ruling class. The way our country works he is a respect-magnet.

  • POSTED BY Nduru on | August 15, 2012, 9:20 GMT

    Great insight on two very opposite players.

  • POSTED BY dsig3 on | August 15, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    I really like Strauss. Cant stand England but Strauss is a refreshingly mild mannered leader. He wont say anything controversial, but at least he doesnt seek the spotlight and grandstand. Good for him.

  • POSTED BY on | August 15, 2012, 9:53 GMT

    Great captain, fine opening batsman and great ambassador for the game. Deserves every accolade he receives, and has overseen a great era of English cricket.

  • POSTED BY CSpiers on | August 15, 2012, 10:03 GMT

    Strauss hasn't had a good year in tests since 2009, and since that's his only format, shouldn't be people questioning his place more seriously? He seems a good leader, but averages of under 35 for the last 3 years don't speak too well of him.