Tight-knit unit eases Strauss's job
The challenge of leading England in Australia is traditionally one of the toughest assignments in cricket, but for Andrew Strauss the real task on this trip has been to manage the expectations of a squad that has more or less looked after itself on the field. As the fifth and final Test of an historic series approaches at Sydney, Strauss has once again called on his players to keep their feet on the ground, and ensure that a hard-earned series lead in translated into a memorable series win.
With the Ashes already in the bag thanks to England's thumping innings-and-157-run victory at the MCG, Strauss recognises there may be a temptation to relax going into the final week of the series. However, he is sure that England's focus will be back on the job after a brief burst of euphoria in Melbourne, and having turfed the team out of bed at 7.30am on New Year's Day for a 9 o'clock nets session, there will be no excuse for cobwebs come the start of the match on Monday morning.
"We had some quite big celebrations in Melbourne after winning the Test and rightly so because the guys deserved that," said Strauss. "But we got to Sydney and had a fairly moderate New Year if I'm honest. It's definitely a case of us keeping our feet on the ground and preparing for the Test match. There is no way we want Australia to win this Test match and draw this series. We are in a great position to win the series but we need to play well again this week. We don't want to slip into bad habits."
In keeping with their standard practice, England will name their 11 on the day of the match, with Paul Collingwood expected to retain his place in the middle order in spite of his poor run of form. Australia, however, have already confirmed that two debutants will line up in their side - Usman Khawaja at No. 3 and the spinner Michael Beer, who has been kept on ice ever since his shock call-up to the squad in Perth. "It is not any huge surprise," said Strauss. "But there will be some different challenges for us and we need to be well prepared."
By and large, that has been a given for England on this most meticulously planned tour. Aside from their shellacking in Perth, where their downfall was hastened by an inspired spell of bowling from Mitchell Johnson, they have been alert to the pitfalls presented in all situations, and quick to capitalize on any opportunity to claim the ascendancy. For Strauss, who had to overcome internal strife in the Caribbean during his first series at the helm in 2009, and external controversy against Pakistan last summer, the trip has been almost restful by comparison.
"It's certainly been one of the easier tours I've been on in regard to captaincy," he said. "We've not really had any issues off the park. We generally play good cricket. The biggest challenge has been to keep the guys' feet on the ground and make sure we don't get ahead of ourselves. If that's what you're worried about as captain, you know things are going your way.
"I wouldn't say it's been an easy tour," he added. "It's just that we have a tight unit, a bunch of guys who are all good mates, so you don't have any squabbles in the camp or things that are going wrong off the pitch that take time. And that doesn't surprise me because it's been the case for 12-18 months. What has been very re-assuring is generally our cricket's been good so we've had less to worry about too. But ultimately we've still got the end of this tour - this match and the one-dayers - so there's still plenty of time for us to be challenged."
It will doubtless help England's focus that the final week of the tour isn't actually upon them as yet. In Johannesburg last January, their innings defeat was sealed as the squad were preparing en masse to fly back to England, and in recent times they've suffered similarly crushing results in the final Tests of pre-Christmas trips to the subcontinent - such as Colombo in 2003-04, or Galle last time around, when they were bowled out for 81 on the opening day of the Test only to be saved by rain.
"We're not in that position at the moment but there are other reasons for us to take our eye off the ball in this Test match and it's important we don't do that," said Strauss. "It is a lovely feeling to know the urn is coming back with us but it will leave a bitter taste in the mouth if we aren't able to play well this week. It is a big challenge for us because we have a lot of people patting us on the back and telling us how brilliant we are but the reality is that you are only as good as your next game. We have to really get stuck in here and make sure we play well again.
"If you look at our record we've been very good coming back after defeats, less good after wins so that's something we have to put right," he added. "Sometimes there's a reason for it, sometimes the other team just plays well and sometimes we need to put our hands up and say 'we weren't in the right place mentally to play that Test match'. We've talked about it a lot and the guys are very conscious about it. It's certainly about trying to get back to basics and get right on top of the opposition again."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.