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Review: Driving Ambition

England's cultural architect

Andrew Strauss's autobiography is not a book to settle scores or rail at injustice. It's a comfortable read full of decency and discretion

David Hopps

October 10, 2013

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The cover of Andrew Strauss' autobiography <i>Driving Ambition</i>
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There are not many obvious titles left for cricketers' autobiographies, but even allowing for that there are times when Driving Ambition - My Autobiography seems a strange choice for Andrew Strauss. History, with good reason, is likely to look affectionately upon a man who skippered England to their No. 1 Test ranking, and did so with decency and integrity clear for all to see.

But driving ambition? This, by his own admission, is the England captain who twice had the job floated in front of him and was not immediately sure whether he should take it or not. When Duncan Fletcher enquired if he wanted to captain England in Australia in 2006-07, Strauss politely suggested that it was his decision. "I'm sure he was looking for me to put forward a stronger argument," he reflects.

Even when he did get the job, and in league with Andy Flower began the task of salvaging England's respect after Kevin Pietersen's captaincy self-destructed, his first reaction was to tell Hugh Morris, the managing director of the England team, that perhaps somebody younger, like Alastair Cook, deserved a go. This time - after a stiff talking-to by his wife - he had the sense to phone back.

The first time Strauss demurred, Andrew Flintoff took charge of a shambolic tour and England were thumped 5-0. Strauss admits that he felt "more than a little dread at the thought of dealing with the immense baggage that would be created if Flintoff was not made captain". By the end of the winter, drinking heavily, Flintoff had also supervised a shambolic World Cup campaign and Fletcher's resignation became inevitable.

Fletcher's assertion that Strauss might be grateful in the long run for missing out on the job has become an accepted truth. But not lobbying for the job did him few favours. He admits the three-month tour was "without doubt my lowest moment as an England cricketer". By the following September, he was dropped for England's tour of Sri Lanka and he salvaged his Test career by the skin of his teeth against New Zealand in Napier. The Test captaincy, for which he had looked equipped for years, might never have happened.

Strauss' publishers have never been shy of encouraging him to put his thoughts in print. His official autobiography is his fourth book in seven years, following Andrew Strauss: Coming Into Play, Andrew Strauss: Testing Times and Andrew Strauss: Winning the Ashes Down Under. The first three were vetted by the ECB. His autobiography, written after his retirement, has not been vetted at all and was a chance for something bolder. It is not always possible to tell the difference. Strauss is a master of self-censorship.

This is not an autobiography to settle scores or rail at injustice. Decency and discretion fill every page. It is a comfortable read coming from a man who life has looked kindly upon from the moment he won a trial at Middlesex, seemingly as much because of whom he knew as what he had achieved, and who initially gave the impression of being incorrigibly lazy.

It is at its most intriguing when Strauss' innate conservatism and respect for authority conflict with his high sense of injustice if his integrity is impugned, most obviously seen in his anger in 2010 when a Pakistan official - whose side were in the middle of a match-fixing scandal - made a glib and unwarranted suggestion after an England collapse that England must be at it as well.

 
 
There is little here that would one day count against Strauss taking high office at the ECB. He even refuses to reveal details of England's statistical studies
 

Strauss, like the majority of the England side, was ready to boycott the fourth ODI at Lord's, only to change his position after hearing the "excellent powers of persuasion" of the ECB chairman, Giles Clarke. Close to midnight, he put the matter to a dressing-room vote, insisting that the view of the majority be followed, and spoke in favour of fulfilling the game. The boycott was averted.

He allows himself the observation that England had a habit of appointing captain-coach combinations that did not like each other. Failing to learn from the relationship between Flintoff and Fletcher, they then opted for Peter Moores and Pietersen, even though "it was already obvious to everybody that [they] did not get on at all - they were barely on speaking terms". Just do not expect him to tell any lurid tales out of school. His take on Moores' downfall - perceiving him as a successful county coach who failed to recognise that a perpetually challenging and energetic style was less appropriate at international level - is not original, but at least one senses the development of a theme.

There is little here that would one day count against him taking high office at the ECB. He even refuses to reveal details of England's statistical studies in case it costs England a Test or two - in Strauss' mind, the amount of runs saved over an average summer by posting a deep cover must remain part of the Official Secrets Act.

And that is probably how it should be. Strauss' England was a successful collective, built on self-reliance and an insistence that the team environment must never be damaged by factions or egotistical excess. In Strauss' case, by combining him with the firm coaching style of Flower, England this time assembled a successful partnership.

"Corporate consultants would probably look at our group and conclude that there were some strong 'cultural architects', or a critical mass of individuals who policed the side," Strauss observes. "I prefer to say that they were a bunch of good blokes, who all desperately wanted to be part of something special."

It is another nice thought, but as he pursues his own consultancy business, Think Half Full, (avoiding the clutches of the ECB at least for the moment), those corporate consultants he refers to should not be so lightly dismissed. Many good blokes lose. Many united sides are only united because they are winning. But Strauss' England found togetherness first, success second.

Good blokes around him or not, Strauss' leadership strength was by and large as the consultants would have it. He was the cultural architect who fostered one of the more successful and contented phases in English cricket history. It is possible to consider him while barely dwelling upon his 21 Test hundreds. England have much to thank him for.

Driving Ambition: My Autobiography
by Andrew Strauss
Hodder & Stoughton
288 pages, £20

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (October 10, 2013, 9:00 GMT)

From the moment that I heard that Strauss's first post-retirement book was called 'Driving Ambition', I thought - heck - I never had AS down as a man whose ambition was driving him, unless it was taken as his interpretation (or as a short-hand) for collective ambition for the England Test team. But that would be a strange use of a word that carries with it strong connotations of obsessive self-focus and end-justifying-means. I find ambitious men & women (especially when the ambition is of the 'driven' variety) curious creatures. To me, they always seem a tad insecure & therefore want reassurance, egos stroked and are generally none too interested in the doings of your little world. The planet is full of 'em and frankly they are often wearying company. None of that is, so far as an interested onlooker can make out, true of AS. All the same, it's a catchy title, but it can hardly have been his own suggestion. And from DH's review here it suggests that it is misleading, but never mind!

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David Hopps David Hopps joined ESPNcricinfo as UK editor early in 2012. For the previous 20 years he was a senior cricket writer for the Guardian and covered England extensively during that time in all Test-playing nations. He also covered four Olympic Games and has written several cricket books, including collections of cricket quotations. He has been an avid amateur cricketer since he was 12, and so knows the pain of repeated failure only too well. The pile of untouched novels he plans to read, but rarely gets around to, is now almost touching the ceiling. He divides his time between the ESPNcricinfo office in Hammersmith and his beloved Yorkshire.

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