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March 1, 2008
Andrew Strauss showed what England had been missing during his brief exile from the Test side, by batting for a shade over four hours in Dunedin to record his first century in English colours since August 2006. In so doing, he booked his spot in the starting line-up for the first Test against New Zealand at Hamilton on Wednesday, where he will bat at No. 3 for the first time in his 43-match career.
"I don't see it as being a massive deal for an opener to bat at three," said Strauss. "The skills are similar, and I've always found it slightly strange that openers are pigeonholed and shouldn't bat anywhere else. To be honest, I've found it nice to get off the field and relax for a few overs."
"I felt I needed a score to justify the faith that's been put in me, but I wasn't losing sleep at night," said Strauss, who was dropped for the tour to Sri Lanka before Christmas after failing to record a century in 25 visits to the crease. He had managed only nine runs in his first two innings of the current tour, and his place was coming under a renewed threat from his Middlesex team-mate Owais Shah, but today's effort has settled the argument for the time being.
"I feel in a slightly better mental state for that innings," said Strauss. "It's so crucial on any tour to get time in the middle, because we've been on tours previously where batsmen have struggled in tour games and then are playing catch-up come the Tests. It was good that Belly [Ian Bell] got runs as well, and hopefully the others will make hay [at Hamilton]."
For any New Zealanders watching, it seemed to be business as usual for Strauss. In May 2004, he famously scored a century and 83 on debut against them, and - then as now - his awareness of his scoring areas set him apart from the other batsmen on show. For the man himself, however, today's innings was a welcome return to the mindset he briefly lost during that barren run in 2007.
"At the end of last season, I was maybe too conscious of trying to get a score, and because of that I went outside my gameplan a little bit," said Strauss. "But now I'm feeling a different type of pressure and it's been pretty motivating. If you've played a lot of Tests in a row, you don't have that sharpness to think: 'Right, I've really got to make it pay today'. If I've got that sort of mindset, hopefully it'll help me score runs in the Test match."
A chance for a break from the grind of international cricket is a rare thing in this modern day and age, and Strauss admitted to mixed feelings upon his return to the side. "It was quite strange coming back into the squad," he said. "In some ways it was very familiar, but in some ways it felt as though I was coming in for the first time. Mentally it's very different to being part of the furniture. You have a point to prove and in some ways that can inspire you."
England are in need of some inspiration. Their defeat in Sri Lanka before Christmas meant that they have lost back-to-back Test series for the first time since they last arrived in New Zealand for a Test series, back in 2001-02. "Every tour is a new start," said Strauss, "but we're keen to prove we are better than we've shown. You can't go out and expect to win Test matches, you have to do the hard work first. That'll be the challenge in this first Test, to get into a position to dominate, rather than trying to dominate from ball one."
New Zealand's Test side has been in the doldrums of late, and the loss of their strike bowler, Shane Bond, has blunted their cutting edge, but Strauss still predicts a feisty match-up in the coming weeks. "These are two sides trying to get that winning momentum, and both sides are likely to play hard cricket," he said. "Without Bond, they've got no real lightning bowler, so they are going to have to work hard for their wickets, but that doesn't mean they are not good bowlers. They've all had success recently, and the worse thing we can do is under-rate anyone. We've got to do our hard work and get into position to get on top of them."