Strauss: fine man, exceptional leader

To paraphrase Gary Lineker, the England captaincy is a simple thing: it goes well until South Africa led by Graeme Smith arrive; then things start to go wrong, England lose and the captain resigns. Not always, perhaps, but that is the story of three of the last four England captains, slain at the hands of Smith and South Africa. He’s got some blood on his hands, that boy.

Or was it another South African? There was, if not a pleasing symmetry to Andrew Strauss’s retirement for all forms of cricket yesterday, then symmetry nonetheless: three and a half years ago, Strauss sat at Lord’s, flanked by ECB officialdom, thrust into office on the back of a mess created by Kevin Pietersen. Now, flanked by ECB officialdom, he departed on the back of another mess created by Pietersen. There are those who will think that Pietersen, too, has some blood on his hands.

The word ‘traitor’ has been freely banded around by those close to the England dressing room during the last few weeks, and Strauss’s retirement will have done little to soften the feelings against England’s best player. The man who shot Bambi, was the phrase used in the press conference, if not by those in front of the microphones. Strauss was held in the highest regard by his team-mates and they will be incandescent that their captain has, seemingly, walked the plank because of an ego that is out of control.

That is how they may see it, which will make the forthcoming weeks very interesting indeed, but it would be mistaken for the rest of us to view it that way. Pietersen’s antics might have been the catalyst for the departure, but Strauss’s grip on the captaincy has been weakening for a while. It was, he said, a personal decision one formed by the knowledge that he had, to use his own words, run his race. He had had enough.

Perhaps the bubbling source of the journey to retirement could be found at the point Strauss stepped down from the one-day captaincy. There is nothing wrong with a split captaincy- indeed it can be a beneficial situation- but when someone who has done both jobs steps down at an age when he is nearer the end of his career than the beginning, then, like the wick of a burning candle, things can go but one way. Strauss might have found his reduced role gave him a better work/life balance, but it didn’t necessarily make his job any easier.

Nor, and this really is the crux of the issue, did the gentle decline in form that has accelerated through the last twelve months. Good personal form is essential to a captain, and Strauss was miffed in Sri Lanka that his team-mates were forced to continually defend his claims to a place in the team. He wanted, out of pride as much as anything, to avoid that situation occurring again, as it would have done with increasing volume had things started to go awry in India in November. It was distraction he and the team could do without.

The combination then of poor form and poor results culminating in the heavy defeat by South Africa, with the added complication of Pietersen, meant that it was time to go and Strauss knew it, as all England captains come to know it eventually. He said he sensed it before the South African series had started. It was a series, he said, that he had viewed as watershed some way out: had it gone well, for him and the team, then there was a chance he could have stayed on through India to the Ashes series beyond, but the events of the summer put paid to that.

So Strauss spent the last week in Spain, mulling over the feelings that had germinated twelve months ago and been growing throughout the summer. Nobody tried to dissuade him from going, which is how it should be, since nobody knows but the man himself. Then Strauss wrote letters of thanks- a damn sight classier that texts or tweets, as befits a man of old fashioned manners- which were distributed to the team on Tuesday after the defeat in Southampton. It was, said Alastair Cook, a sad dressing room to be sitting in at that point.

Strauss’s timing was perfect, though, as was his decision to retire completely from the game, rather than attempting to play on with either England or Middlesex. It is a clean break for England, allowing Cook to forge his own path, and allowing for another opening combination to develop; a clean break to for Strauss, too, who can turn his attentions to the rest of his life.

When asked whether he was upset to be leaving at a time of perceived strife and discord within the dressing room, his response was emphatic. He said he could not have been more proud of the way his team played at Lord’s, the manner with which they held themselves during the Pietersen episode and the way in which they attempted the run-chase on the final day. Even in defeat, you can be a winner. And what a winner he has been: an outstanding England captain who has lead the team, as he himself said, through a wonderful era for English cricket, one that encompassed some pulsating Ashes victories and a journey to the top of the world rankings. It is difficult to believe that there could be a more notable achievement than winning in Australia by a margin of three innings victories- a high point for Strauss personally and one that will be seen for ever amongst the greatest moments in English cricketing history.

More than that, he has carried himself with dignity throughout, true to his principles during the difficult times and able to be measured and thoughtful in the good times when others may have been tempted to hyperbole. The applause that greeted the end of his press conference yesterday- from a bunch of pretty cynical types- was genuine, and reflected on a man who, more than most other England captains, has had a firm hold on the right and proper way to conduct oneself in high office.

My only quibble was when he missed the Bangladesh tour two years ago. The reason given then was that the rest would stand him in good stead and allow him to get through to the forthcoming Ashes tours and beyond. His retirement yesterday shows the fallacy of that argument, as if rest can be stored for future crises much as a camel stores water to see it through the drought. It can’t. The England captaincy is a full-time, full-on job and needs to be done with no thought to any long-term future, rather an understanding that it is going to be knackering for the reasonably short time that you are in it. A good lesson for Cook.

What now for Strauss? A little time with the family, he said, a little time to reflect and then came the dread phrase: ‘a chance to get the golf handicap down.’ But when I bumped into him later, he said he didn’t want to be idle for too long. Good: life is too short to idly reflect on things that have passed, and certainly too short to be spent on the golf course. No doubt this fine man still has much to contribute.