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Tradesman at the Top

2 December 2009.

With his matter-of-fact approach, Andrew Strauss is better placed than his predecessors to develop the winning culture his side so needs.

Among England captains of the last 20 years Andrew Strauss sits nearer the top than the bottom. Although he lacks the predatory instincts that characterised Michael Vaughan’s best work or the passion sensed in Nasser Hussain at his most confronting, he might end up with the superior record. No England captain since 1956 has managed to take his team to the top of the rankings. None has been able to win a World Cup. It is high time England was rid of these embarrassments, high time it took its turn at the pinnacle. But then, it is not a turn but an act of collective will.

Strauss’s most recent predecessors were a curious collection. Michael Atherton was a stubborn leader with firm opinions and a reluctance to put his fate to the wind. He inherited England at a low point and gave himself the task of repairing their reputation. No one ever saw him slump. A bad back, Glenn McGrath, his own limitations, and the fact that his two most dangerous bowlers, Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm, were hazardous operations, prevented him taking the team further along the path. At least he ensured it was going in the right direction.

Andrew Strauss

Andrew Strauss opening the batting for Somerset during their tour match against India in 2011.
Photo ©: Harrias, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hussain brought a fiery counterpoint to Atherton’s cerebral approach and his abundant ambition contrasted with the Cambridge man’s caution. But he too was undone by the slender resources at his disposal. Inevitably frustration set in. Both university men felt obliged to spend an unconscionable amount of time watching their rearguard. Atherton was a reformer, Hussain a radical.

It fell to Michael Vaughan to build upon the foundations laid by these capable precursors. Like Napoleon’s favourite generals, the adopted Yorkshireman had luck on his side. He took charge as Andrew Flintoff finally turned his full attention to the game, Kevin Pietersen dared to seek greatness, and the Australians began to fade. Unaffected by years of defeat, Vaughan was able to convey belief in his side and was confident enough to roll the dice. He took England to second on the list, guided them to a memorable victory over the Australians and then fell back as his body let him down and his side lost momentum. Although he hung on for a while and surely dreamed, as so many dreamed, of a revival of the spirit of ’05, he was finished long before he withdrew to the newspapers.

England’s next move was obvious to everyone except officials and tub thumpers. Strauss had the determination and judgment needed to take over the reins. However, England had fallen on hard times, which promote desperate measures. Accordingly Flintoff, at once the white knight, the glorious amateur, one of the boys and England’s secret dream, took the team to Australia in 2006-07, and by his own account promptly tried to drink the country dry.

Reluctant to cut their losses, England gambled again by turning to Pietersen. Perhaps they believed that a man who had extracted the last drop from his own ability might be able to give the same direction to a drifting outfit. Perhaps, too, they wanted to discover his capabilities. After all Australians can only guess what sort of international captain Shane Warne might have made. Alas, it did not work. Pietersen turned out to be a hothead and was dumped as soon as opportunity arose.

Finally Strauss was promoted. Although it sometimes deserts him at the crease, as far as captaincy is concerned his timing could hardly have been better. If he was disappointed by the delay he did not show it. Opening batsmen are taught to keep their heads down and their eyes on the ball. They are used to batting on sticky wickets. By and large openers know their games inside out. As a tribe they tend to scorn the flash hats and fancy shots detected in the middle order. Most keep these thoughts to themselves, though, for openers are without exception self-effacing, brave, devoted and discreet. Strauss has opened all his life, has been trusted all his life, has been assigned hard tasks all his life. No wonder they gave him the job. Not even the staunch left-hander, though, could have saved England in 2006-07. After all he is a man not a magician.

Durability counts among his strong points, and it is an important quality in a captain. According to some, cricket captains merely walk out in smart blazers for the toss and are otherwise as powerless as traffic policemen in Kolkata. In fact, they take a hundred small decisions every day, must be able to make up their minds quickly and to live with the consequences. Before long, mental stamina becomes a factor. Happily, Strauss does not seem to be the tormented sort, forever agonising over yesterday’s mistake and reluctant to take tomorrow’s decision. Nor does he appear to regard himself as a master tactician; merely as a common-sense leader able to absorb the blows and remain on track. There is no agitation in him. He may lose a match or his wicket. A proud competitor, he is not pleased by these turns of events but does not panic. It is not about him.

As much could be told from England’s recovery from their two-day defeat in Leeds. In many respects the fightback recalled the similar rally after the heavy loss at Lord’s in 2005. Refusing to make excuses, unwilling to turn calamity into catastrophe, Strauss held the line. It had been a chaotic contest, with Flintoff coming and going and England talking about nothing else; wicketkeepers hurt themselves minutes before the match was due to begin, and meanwhile all the usual duties had to be performed. Unsurprisingly Strauss fell cheaply – might have departed first ball – and the team was taken apart. His preparations had been disrupted, his mind had been distracted. In short, he had not been himself. But he did not complain. England had been outplayed and needed to bounce back. Refusing to whine, looking forwards not backwards, learning from the mistakes, Strauss set the example.

As far as captaincy is concerned it has been a case of so far so good. He has scored a stack of runs as captain, including a vital 161 against Australia at Lord’s, averages in the mid 40s, and has led his side to an Ashes victory. And he has done it all without drawing attention to himself. He has not concerned himself with looking shrewd, has not buttered up the papers, has concentrated instead on keeping a straight bat and producing results. No one rhapsodises about his tactics or his strokeplay but he has delivered the goods.

And he is tough as well. By no means has it all been plain sailing. For a start, he has had to absorb the temperaments of two high-profile players, Pietersen and Flintoff, has had to manage with and without them. His mettle has been tested and his integrity questioned. Fingers were pointed at a contentious slip catch taken at Lord’s. Of course it was an over-reaction. Those low catches always look dodgy. His refusal to allow a limping Graeme Smith a runner was likewise correct. Smith’s fitness has long been a concern and he could not expect sympathy, let alone support, from his opponents. Strauss’s hard line caused a rumpus and led to absurd accusations of poor sportsmanship. In fact his judgment has been sound and batsmen have been recalled after bumping into fieldsmen or otherwise departing in dubious circumstances.

Naturally his greatest claim to fame lies with his Ashes victory. Australians are inclined to argue that England won the 2009 Ashes through the back door. They point out that their batsmen scored more runs and their bowlers took more wickets than their counterparts. It is a smokescreen. The winners were the better side. Strauss was the better captain. England selectors did a better job. Doubtless the encroaching physio did lend a hand in Cardiff, while in another era The Oval groundsman might have been awarded an MBE, but England dominated three of the five matches and that’s the end of the matter.

Strauss deserved his accolades. Throughout the series his wicket was the most prized. It indicated an ability to compartmentalise his mind. Whatever the mood of match or rooms, he walked to the crease and played his own game. At Lord’s he took charge on the opening day, pragmatically punishing Mitchell Johnson‘s sketchy offerings, putting the ball away, punching as opposed to placing, cracking as opposed to caressing. As far as England supporters were concerned, his lack of style was comforting. Here was an opening batsman unlikely to lose his head on some vain flight of fancy. Among cricketers, he is more tradesman than craftsman, and more craftsman than artist. Mostly he just likes making runs.

Strauss’s next and most important task is to produce the sustained success that has for so long eluded England. He is better placed than Vaughan to achieve this aim because 2009 was a second coming not a thrilling breakthrough. Moreover he has, by his side, an astute young coach untouched by the fury detected in Duncan Fletcher. Strauss is here to stay. He will lock horns again with Ricky Ponting in 2010-11 and also probably in 2013. Between times he needs to keep his team and his captaincy going forwards. Vaughan’s side suffered from ambition attained. His team drowned in honey. Strauss was part of that and will know that it was glorious and insufficient. England need to develop a winning culture. Strauss might lack panache but he usually gets the job done.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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