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February 26, 2009
This doesn't look like the worst of Tests to miss for a bowler, which could provide some solace for Steve Harmison. His omission surprised many, but the disappointment he felt may have eased as he watched Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook carve West Indies to all corners in the most benign of conditions. Cruising is a popular way to reach Barbados and the openers did just that for two sessions.
This was England's first double-century opening stand since Strauss and Marcus Trescothick added 273 at Durban in 2004, but runs alone aren't going to be enough. They are the side that needs to win and all the talk has been about whether they can take 20 wickets. That is going to require hard toil from the four main bowlers whenever England have finished filling their boots.
Opening batsmen have to deal with their fair share of hostile conditions where the ball is swinging and seaming, only to then watch when the middle order takes the glory. Today was their chance. Opening partnerships can do so much to set the tone of an innings and a match. When England found themselves 1-0 in the 2005 Ashes, Strauss and Trescothick came out all-guns blazing at Edgbaston, adding 112 before lunch to show Australia they wouldn't be backed into a corner. As Duncan Fletcher said in his recent Guardian column, the team were able to play that way because, despite defeat at Lord's, they had the confidence gained from prolonged success.
It is no coincidence that England's decline in fortunes since 2005 can be traced to the loss of Trescothick. Injury to Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, coupled with Harmison's loss of form, have all been crucial, but the impact of losing Trescothick was immense. He gave the side impetus, but also had the ability to build Test centuries while allowing his partner - often it was Strauss - to play second fiddle.
When Trescothick pulled out of the 2006-07 Ashes, Strauss tried to reinvent himself as the dasher, but two errant pull shots in Brisbane showed it was a game plan that didn't suit. "I tried to do that against Australia in the Ashes and it didn't go very well for me," he said. "I think it's more a case of assessing the wicket and assessing the bowlers then deciding the odds are in my favour. The more experienced you become as a batsman the better you are at judging that."
He perhaps felt forced into the new role by Cook's style of play which didn't (and still doesn't) lend itself to quick scoring. It is why there has been a concern that the current pair are too similar to be an ideal opening combination. But new relationships need time to flourish and the captain and vice-captain are beginning to gel. The 229-run stand was their sixth hundred-plus effort since they were reunited at the beginning of the home series against New Zealand last year.
What has marked the two most recent performances, here and in Antigua, has been the newest evolution of Strauss's play. He showed at the ARG an aggression that hadn't been seen since 2005, while at the same time remaining compact and using the shots he feels comfortable with. This innings was another free-flowing display, admittedly helped by inconsistent bowling.
"You get a rhythm to your batting on any given day and I felt that if I continued being positive it was the best way for me to go in this instance," he said. "The reality is that it is great to be playing with freedom here, but I personally believe you have to earn the right to play with that freedom and maybe the grafting innings I played last summer have given me enough confidence to play that way."
If it's difficult to believe that this is same batsman who was dropped, that's because he has emerged a very different character and his standing among England's elite is rising by the day. He now has more hundreds than Alec Stewart managed in 133 Tests and the same as Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain managed in 100 each.
Captaincy affects batsmen in different ways, but after the tough start at Sabina Park it appears to have brought Strauss out of his shell. Strauss circa 2007 or 2008 wouldn't have dreamt of reaching his hundred with a six over deep midwicket. There's also his one-day role to consider. He is the limited-overs captain for this tour by default, because the ECB didn't want more upheaval, but he could yet have something to offer longer term. One captain is always preferable.
His increased scoring rate has allowed Cook to maintain his own rhythm without the innings drawing to a halt. For someone trying to break his hundredless run, it is one less thing to worry about. And for 64 overs they dovetailed perfectly only to both fall when there was more to come; Strauss was playing well enough to reach a double, Cook was on the verge of that elusive century. But, as the cliché goes, if the team had been offered 229 at the start they'd have taken it.
If the next few years work out how England hope, Strauss will lead the side through the current difficult times and in four years or so Cook will be ready to take over the reins. Nothing, in English cricket, is ever that simple but this can develop into a partnership of leadership and today they have both led from the front.
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Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind