As he walked into his final pre-match press conference of the summer, on the eve of becoming only the ninth Englishman to play a hundred Test matches for his country, Andrew Strauss must have felt like the last sane man in the asylum. And if he didn’t feel like that, his questioners certainly looked upon him that way.
It has been a week when English cricket has shown its worst side: the nonsense, the posturing, the head-in-the-sand obstinacy and the utter juvenility of it all. It culminated in possibly the most po-faced and ridiculous press release ever seen when Stuart Broad, who increasingly gives the impression of someone who takes himself a little too seriously, denied any involvement in a parody account set up by an acquaintance.
The months since rising to the top of the world rankings have not been kind to England, which must disappoint Strauss more than he lets on. One of his greatest strengths as a player and as a captain during the last eight years has been a consistency and constancy of purpose. Whether high on a plateau or struggling in the trough, Strauss’s demeanour has never changed and his ambition has been unrelenting. Would that were true of his team.
For much of the time following on from his appointment as captain, his team seemed to be moulded in his image: purposeful, grounded, with egos either banished or harnessed to a greater cause. The Ashes victory in Australia was the apotheosis of that, a campaign so air-tight and efficient that even the most ardent environmentalist would have found no cause to grumble.
In the last twelve months things have slowly started to unravel, culminating in the ostracising of the best player in the team amidst a great deal of bile and bitterness, so that it is hard to think that we will see Strauss quite so powerful or in control again. England go to India this winter, a challenge beyond most England teams of recent vintage, and at 35 years of age his best days will be behind him.
He may surprise us, of course, and yesterday he reiterated that he is feels as committed and as passionate about leading England as he ever has done. Graham Gooch’s best days as an England player came in the twilight of his career, but he had not played a hundred Tests by then- it takes it out of you, no matter what anyone says- and had not achieved for England what his contemporaries at Essex knew him to be capable of. With only the odd glitch in those hundred Tests, Strauss has fulfilled his talent. There is not much more to achieve.
There is a pleasing symmetry to him gaining his hundredth cap at Lord’s, a place that has always brought out the best of him, as his five Test centuries on that ground suggest. It was here that he made his debut eight years ago against New Zealand, announcing himself with a hundred in his first innings, which he might have added to in his second, had he not been a victim in a farcical run-out. Immediately, his qualities were in evidence: strong on the cut and efficient off his hip, with a punch down the ground when the bowlers tried to avoid his strengths and overcompensated on length.
Not much has changed. Yesterday, I tried to recall some of Strauss’s finest innings: there was that debut hundred, a career saving marathon in Napier, an important hundred at Lord’s against Australia in 2009, and an innings in Bangalore against India in the World Cup that most thought beyond him. I recall his celebrations having scored a hundred at Old Trafford against Australia in 2005, too, but that was because of a garish plaster that covered his ear after being hit by a Brett Lee bouncer. And that’s about it.
None of which is meant in any way as a criticism. Too often in this country we are in thrall to style over substance. We pine for those players who are called ‘talented’ even though they underachieve time and time again. In years to come you can bet that it will be Owais Shah, for example, a Middlesex contemporary of Strauss’s, who will be thought of as the more talented cricketer, even though he has achieved a fraction of what Strauss has.
Strauss has talent alright: talent to have worked out a method that suits him; talent to have been able to transfer his abilities to the biggest stage at the first time of asking; talent to have done it when it counts and when his career was in danger of imploding; talent to keep on doing it, over a hundred Tests; talent to be able to put all the distractions to one side, as we are sure he will be able to do in this his toughest of weeks.
As with his batting, so his captaincy. It is hard to recall many moments when Strauss has pulled the rabbit of a hat; a brilliant field-placing that resulted in a wicket, or a surprising bowling change. Rather, he captains with common sense and it takes a good deal of self-confidence to eschew the showiness that other captains would go in for. He has engendered deep loyalty (Pietersen notwithstanding) and allowed his players to grow and flourish. They respect him enormously.
He is a man who is defined by his achievements, not by the manner or the making of them. A hundred Tests; 21 Test hundreds- only Wally Hammond, Geoffrey Boycott and Colin Cowdrey have more-; three Ashes victories, including one in Australia by the margin of three innings defeats to none, and, most significantly, restoring a team that had lost its way and taking them to the summit of the world game. These are significant achievements and Strauss should be remembered as a significant cricketer.
For the first ten minutes of his press conference yesterday he was forced to endure the Pietersen issue. He handled the questions as best he could; he was calm, unflustered and honest. Eventually, as it must, attention turned to his own situation. Was he proud of what he had achieved and proud of the hundredth cap to come? ‘Proud of the longevity for sure,’ he said, ‘and proud to have played in one of the best eras for English cricket.’
Asked to elaborate, he thought for moment and said, simply: ‘I’m still as passionate and excited about representing my country as I ever have been and I’ve always tried to do what’s in the best interests of the team.’ After a bad week, when some fundamentals have been lost sight of, it was good to hear Strauss re-state the case for, and the principles behind playing for England.