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.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

2 responses to “The timing of Andrew Strauss”

  1. Ged says :

    Since much has been made of the ‘kp saga’ being a culmination of events, let us think which events may have contributed to the current situation.
    Firstly the reality that for all his extravagant talent, Pietersen is a difficult character must surely have been apparent even before his selection  in 2005.  The England set-up has had long enough to consider likely outcomes.
    In the period after the high water mark of 2005 leading up to his sacking as captain in late 2008, my memory suggests that Pietersen was the leading England batsman by some way.  That is memory – I will now check the stats.
    I am back.   40 matches 3566 runs @50 and 14 out of his total of 21 centuries. Compare that to Strauss 2609 @38.94 and 8 centuries.  Cook 2694 @42.09 and 7 centuries ,  Collingwood 2728@43, 7 Centuries Bell 2500@41/7 centuries.
    But he did so in a way that made something of the subsequent criticism of his irresponsibility little ‘short-memoried’.  Relying only on my memory, while Vaughan, Strauss, Trecothick, Flintoff, Bell all had issues of one kind or another at various stages, Pietersen reigned supreme.  Pietersen regularly came in at difficult times, dug in sensibly and then converted.  It would not be too much of a stretch to conclude that even a less egocentric character might have developed a confident self image and a sense of entitlement.
    Then came the captaincy decision – two candidates presented themselves post Flintoff.  Strauss would probably have been the better bet to captain in Australia in 2006 but Flintoff was the mothers favourite and we know what happened there.  But Strauss had entered a run of poor form and his claim had diminished.  Had Strauss been in top form then KP might have had to wait – Strauss was the older, calmer man with greater seniority and had been next in line after Vaughan and Flintoff.  But mow the selectors would have to weigh up the impact on KP if they chose the lesser player who was a little fortunate to be in the side.
    Stlll, for reasons obvious to all before and since, choosing KP was, as Strauss said at the time, ‘brave’.  Let me say that again – as Strauss said at the time.  I remember thinking that this was disloyal from the lesser player who was fortunate to be in the side.  None of the outward show of loyalty that, it seems, has become expected of King Arthur’s Knights.
    I have always wondered at how weak England captains appear to be when they are the only game in town.  It came through in Artherton’s autobiography of his early dealings with Illingworth – later on, perhaps Atherton was hanging on, but when he was the only viable candidate why didn’t he flex his muscles.  Similarly Pietersen – how strong was his bargaining position?  I would have thought never stronger – before or since, but it didn’t come across like that.  He appeared grateful to be given the chance, and therefore accepting of a number of issues that he probably wasn’t happy with.  He fought for Vaughan to be included but apparently was overruled in absentia.  He did not rate Moores who has been dignified and humble in the aftermath but I believe that it is not only KP that believes Moores has a lot to be humble about.
    Pietersen not unreasonably wanted to bring this to a head and requested a showdown.  He wrote in his column relatively straightforward terms that there were ‘issues’ but nothing I saw or heard him do publicly was so outrageous.  So why did they round on him so mercilessly – unless they had already decided that they had made a mistake and simply seized on the first opportunity they had to bring him down to size.  Apparently they canvassed the opinion of the players including shop steward Harmison who was the lesser player and was lucky to be in the side.  Well fine, but the error was theirs in the first place and the whole sorry episode reflects badly on them.  Was he briefed against by people who subsequently decided that ‘face to face’ was the only way to do business?
    Then came Pietersen and the IPL.  Initially he said ‘not interested’ and then said ‘how much’.  Who wouldn’t?  Well I tell you who would.  ANYBODY in that team in the same position.  Stuart Broad’s high minded selection of the Ashes over IPL was a different situation – a young plaer with a reputation still to forge.  KP was the finished article in a way nobody else was.  Whatever kind of person KP was or is, at some point there was ALWAYS going to be a challenge to the scheduling demands of representing England in three forms of the game.
    That challenge would have come sooner but for form, fitness and state of mind.  Was KP cuddled the way Brearley cuddled the discarded Botham?  I guess probably not.  For some little time the swagger was gone and muscles could not be flexed.  Teammates excelled – Cook, Trott, Bell all made KPs place seem less indespensible.  Surely this explains timing – as the wheel has turned KP has emerged again as the best player of his generation – frailties yes but box-office in a way Cook and Trott simply never will be.  Emboldened, he has played his cards – and the ECB handed them back.  How the contractual negotiation was handled by either side is probably neither here nor there – we witness many dirty tricks played out in public in all forms of commercial environments.  “There is no sentiment in business” is an old adage.
    But this is where it spilled over.  Pietersen obviously pushed his ego too far in the dressing room and wound up a group of cocky young turks who have developed a not entirely dissimilar sense of entitlement to the very one he displays – added to which perhaps a tinge of jealousy.  Even if Broad was not actively involved – and the jury in my mind is still out despite denials accepted at face value by the ECB. He is, after all their golden boy despite his despicable behaviour on the field – the group dynamic must plainly have been breaking down.  If, like me, you don’t think the group dynamic counts for spit then fine – just let it roll.  But if, like some you subsequently want to hold the dynamic up as sacrosanct, then you better intervene before it blows up in your face.
    If in a fit of pique KP texted that Strauss was a **** was a then he is rude and stupid and he has played into the hands of people who have egos of their own.  It is not clear to me why Strauss should be the object of pietersen’s ire.  Unless he had just come to the conclusion that Strauss himself was coming to – that he was the lesser player who was lucky to be in the side.  To undermine the skipper is unacceptable but it is not as if he slept with his wife or took a bung or took performance enhancing drugs.  A sincere apology, a handshake and a commitment to toe the line should have drawn a line under it and still should.  Kp and the Eco can then get back to arguing over time off.

    And the cocky bowlers – they should mind their own business and start taking some wickets.  And one or two should remember they are lesser players who are a little lucky to be in the side.

    • chrisps says :

      Ged, that’s a tour-de-force.

      We don’t know everything that’s been going on, but speculate we will.

      You draw a compelling picture of KP being hard done-by over much of his England career. There is a view in some England supporting circles that he’s been more trouble than he’s worth, which simply isn’t credible given his playing record. But I don’t find the ‘get KP’ argument any more believable. It would mean selectors, administrators and teammates – all charged with making the England cricket team the best it can be – almost conspiring against their best batsman.

      Many are saying (and you write something similar) that all teams have difficult personalities and England should just get on with it. My guess is that they would say, ‘We know, we’ve had 6 years of it.’

      I think your observations about the relative influence of captain and coach are fascinating. What would be the equivalent in other fields? It’s a bit like CEO and Chairman. Are there any other analogies that come to mind?

      As for Broad, I think the best that can be done right now is to point out that Ravi Bopara is looking pretty handy bowling at 76-80mph, so he needs to put some distance between him and the competition.

      Thanks – I really enjoyed reading it.


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