The timing of Andrew Strauss
Andrew Strauss alternates on the Declaration Game banner photo with an older, less able and mentally weaker left-hander. While his presence there was opportunistic – I was looking for an image of a captain declaring – it has always felt fitting. He’s an admirable cricketer, the leader of the England Test team whose fortunes so influence my moods.
I don’t, though, regret his decision to resign today. I am relieved. I am pleased for Strauss that he remained in control of the end of his cricket career. I am also excited by the opportunities it presents the England Test team – but that’s not for now.
So, that relief I feel: Strauss acknowledged that his lack of runs was a major factor in his decision to retire. I had feared we were on the cusp of a period of up to eighteen months where every match preview would warn of his need for a significant score; every dismissal open him up to questions about his form, not his team’s performance. In the UAE last winter, he had batted against Pakistan’s slow bowlers as if tightly tethered to his leg-stump. I didn’t want to see him plodding and poking in India.
I saw his penultimate Test innings. He fell to the final ball of the morning session of day two at Lord’s, bowled by a swift Morne Morkel off-cutter. I was relieved then, too: Strauss could tuck into some lunch and England’s innings in the afternoon would be free of their captain’s struggles. Strauss had succumbed to a very fine spell of fast bowling by Morkel. The bat was beaten on both edges and sharp lift troubled him. Australia may not have a bowler yet to match Morkel, but he had demonstrated a method to unsettle the England captain that Pattison, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Starc and the rest would aim to emulate.
If Strauss had made it past India, there was then the prospect of England having to replace their captain and introduce a new top-order batsman in the middle of the back-to-back Ashes series. I am relieved that the timing of Strauss’ decision to retire eliminates that otherwise predictable problem for the England team.
To many England cricket supporters, but not to Strauss himself, the quality of his leadership justified his place in the team. Right now, there seems to be a relationship between how strongly one holds this view and how ardently one objects to Kevin Pietersen. Strauss, the quiet, decent, committed England cricketer, victim of KP’s abuse, was a bulwark against Pietersen’s return.
Praise for Strauss’ leadership has been fulsome, both before and after his decision to retire. It coheres around four aspects of his time as Test captain:
the turnaround: rallying a team that had lost captain and coach, was dismissed for 51 in his first game in charge, to compete for and win the Ashes within six months.
the holy grail: winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years
the ascent: building an unbeaten record that culminated in the four-nil despatch of India and claiming the ICC’s Number 1 Test ranking
the ethos: Strauss followed Pietersen in front of the press at the end of the Headingley Test.
One thing I will say, and it is important to stress this, is that the Team unity that we have had over the last three years has been outstanding. It is something we all pride ourselves on, always have done and will continue to do so going forward.
Before taking each of these claims in turn, I need to stress that I am not, because I cannot, distinguish the achievement of Strauss from that of Andy Flower and the wider England team management.
Was there a great turnaround?
The case usually focuses on the upheaval in early 2009 that saw Strauss abruptly offered the England captaincy. But I think a longer time-frame is more useful. England had lost four of the six series before Strauss took over, only coming out on top against New Zealand – twice. After losing to West Indies in Strauss’ first series, England remained unbeaten in a Test series for three years. The victory over Australia in 2009, admittedly tight, was the best result for three years. Strauss had turned the corner.
How sacred was the Ashes victory down-under?
In two months, England won as many test matches in Australia – three – as they had done in the previous six visits combined. Its huge emotional significance for English cricket has, I would argue, obscured the challenge faced. There was an Australian confluence of: their weakest playing resources for a generation; an ineffectively directed team; and key players unfit and out of form. Strauss’ England capitalised on this rare opportunity, winning three games by large margins, playing uncompromising cricket against fragile, never divine, opponents.
Did England become the very best?
Eight series victories and one draw, culminating in the defeat of India in 2011 placed Strauss’ England top of the ICC’s Test rankings. Even this statistical construct suggested ambivalence. England were never more than a couple of ranking points clear of second and third place. Australia had clear blue water and outback between them and number two when in their pomp. And too many of England’s opponents had been on a downward curve, distracted by other cricket formats or prey to dressing room intrigue. The exception was South Africa in 2009/10 who held England to a tied series, but came within a delivery of winning the two drawn matches. Strauss did not captain a great team, but a fiercely competitive outfit in a time without a dominant force in Test cricket.
A sum greater than its parts?
Few proponents of Strauss’ leadership contend that he could shape games with instinctive or tactical decision-making. The key cricket decisions were taken off the field: who to bat at number three at the Oval in 2009; which bowlers to select for which Tests in Australia. Strauss, it is argued, created with the team a distinctive ethos. To what extent was Strauss’s team unusually and powerfully cohesive? There were plenty of visible signs – bum tapping for a fielder saving a run. And Strauss had friendly conditions. Central contracts meant players’ principal loyalty was to their country. Victories meant a settled squad, but so did the players’ youth as replacements for established stars weren’t required.
Then, this summer, we became aware of the Pietersen situation. The team wasn’t so unified after all. But enough of it was showing togetherness that the renegade was to be sacrificed in the name of unity. The favourable interpretation is that Strauss, when tested to the limit, stuck to the principles that had made his team successful. Two unflattering conclusions about Strauss’ leadership can be reached: 1) he hadn’t developed any enduring team ethos that could include the full range of talents and personalities; 2) the ethos had become an end in itself so that dissent could not be tolerated.
One day Strauss will probably fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of his captaincy of Kevin Pietersen that on-lookers are filling with speculation. I have a theory, that may well be disproved. My theory is that one of Strauss’ greatest achievements as England captain, alongside the turnaround in the team’s fortunes he oversaw in 2008, was his ability to manage Mr Kevin Pietersen, initially sore from his own loss of the captaincy, so that he contributed to the England test team for three successful years.
I trust that if Strauss does decide to tell his side of this story, his timing will be as good as that of his resignation announcement today, and does nothing to damage the England team.