England's Gentleman Captain - A Tribute to Andrew Strauss
A circulating petition clamoring for the alteration of the definition of the word 'cricketer' in the Oxford English Dictionary from the current entry to simply 'Andrew Strauss', would quickly garner my signature; so aptly does the man personify the game. England's former captain and the country's 9th cricket representative to reach a century of Tests was a humble, erudite, insightful and committed cricketer over his 8 year Test career, as well as a reliable and steady captain.
Under him, England went from 51 all out at Sabina Park in 2009; from a team slathered in petty debris and buried under the rubble of the spat between Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen, to successive Ashes victories - Home in 2009 and (infinitely more impressively) away in 2010/11 - and the ascension to the plateau of number 1 in the Test rankings. He has been the pillar around which the England team has risen, he has been the mortar in the Pantheon that is English cricket and while he may not have had the greatest of times with willow in hand, he has led the way admirable. He will, undoubtedly, be sorely missed.
Never the most flamboyant or the most attractive a batsman, Strauss was more an intellectual pragmatist than a romantic purist. His style is nuggety and compact; his slip catching is dignified in its textbook manner and his captaincy is reserved - One wouldn't want to come across as hasty, now would they Straussy? He is one in a million, and England were damn lucky to have had such a man in their roster since 2004.
Andrew Strauss started, somewhat surprisingly being the aristocratically English figure he is, as so many England stars do: in South Africa. But he was reared as a cricketer in England, having moved to the birthplace of the game at an early age. He was welcomed into the bosom of English County Cricket by Middlesex, for whom he scored 83 at number 3 in his inaugural innings as a spritely 21 year-old, and soon after switched to the opener's role: taking to it like a duck to water as he registered his maiden first-class century, a score of 111* against Northamptonshire, from the slot at number 1.
Strauss seemed destined to skipper. In 2002, when Angus Frasier shocked many with his out-of-the-blue retirement, the reins at Middlesex were tossed to young Strauss, still but 25 years old, with the best of wishes. It was, at the time, a subtle and camouflaged progression in the left-hander's development, but one which did not go unnoticed: he went on to captain an ECB National Academy side that featured the likes of Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. It seemed the fates had decided.
Then he bloomed. In 2002, Middlesex's young captain scored over 1000 runs in the Championship at an average of 47.20 with 3 hundreds, followed by an even more run-laden season a year later, 2003 yielding 1400 runs at 51.88 for Straussy, who was beginning to tap-tap on the imposing door that was the England team.
Good form for the England reserves against Bangladeshi XIs earns Strauss his frost taste of international cricket as he was selected ahead of the floundering Vikram Solanki in the ODI team to face Sri Lanka in late 2003. It didn't go as planned however, as England were routed for 88, Strauss offering just 3 runs, as Jayasuriya and co. romped to an emphatic 10 wicket victory. But the majority Andrew Strauss' accolades would come in the Test arena as opposed to on the ODI stage.
In 2004, just days before his 27th birthday, Strauss is called up to the Test team as cover for Butcher and Thorpe, both of whom recovered in time so as to delay Strauss' debut until May in the same year. Michael Vaughan twists his knee in the nets… and Strauss is given the all-important call up for the first Test against New Zealand at Lord's of all places. There's no place like home.
Strauss starts as well as can be, hitting a suave 112 and becoming the first Middlesex captain to score a hundred on Test debut at Lord's, despite a few heart-in-mouth moments in the 90s that are granted to even the most weathered veteran. England's new star also looks set to score successive hundreds but for, as he entered the 80s, a cruel fulfillment of an England player's right of passage: being run out by Nasser Hussain. He had failed to register centuries in both innings of his Test debut, but he was now clearly 'one of the lads' thanks to Nasser.
Lord's has always brought the best out of Andrew Strauss, and it was on the famous ground that he hit his first ODI ton, against the West Indies in 2004, as he and Andrew Flintoff added 226 - a record partnership in ODI's for England. Again, his amendable efforts are for nought as a rampant Chris Gayle earns victory for the Windies.
But back to Test cricket.
In the summer of 2004, Strauss shone, scoring just shy of 600 runs in 7 Tests at an average of 45+: eye-catching form that he was to export to South Africa as he made his frost real mark on Test cricket, winning the match for England in the first Test and averaging 72.88 over the 4 matches. And then came the Ashes.
Andrew Strauss played as vital a role as anyone in England reclaiming of the little urn after 18 years of pain in 2005 as his tough opening partnership with Marcus Trescothcick helped England to a 2-1 series win over the Aussies, Strauss himself notching 2 tons and taking perhaps the slips catch of the decade as he flung himself to his left at third slip to desperately cling onto an edge off Adam Gilchrist.
Strauss is now an established regular in the England setup, and is rewarded with his first taste of international captaincy: for the visit of Pakistan when Vaughan and Flintoff had to pull out. His fairytale existence in Test cricket was, however, soon to experience some tainting. The Ashes series Down Under in 2006/07 proved difficult for not only Strauss, who failed miserably with the bat, but for England as well, Glenn McGrath's bold declaration that the home side would win 5-0 coming to fruition in a series that ardent England fans doubtlessly still wake up in a cold sweat about.
The once untouchable man was looking evermore fragile and susceptible; he regained his opening place in the ODI side for the 2007 World Cup, only to score just 46 runs in 4 innings. His form in the Test game was equally miserable: one of England's nice guys was finding the going tough. Strauss reached his nadir when he was dropped from the Test side following a disappointing return in the away series to Sri Lanka as England toured New Zealand without him. Strauss instead took up a place playing for the Northern Districts and was recalled to the side for the 3rd and last Test of the series. All hinged on how Straussy performed.
He was out cheaply in the first innings and, sensing the impending declension of the dangling sword of Damacles hovering like a guillotine over his head, decided to simply enjoy what he was certain would be his final Test innings… Coming in at number 3, Strauss proceeded to cart the New Zealand attack to all sides in his majestic innings of 177 in a England victory by 121 runs. Catharsis.
Thoroughly reinvigorated, Strauss regained his place opening the innings and undertook the biggest challenge of his England career yet: the full-time captaincy job. In the wake of the Moores-Pietersen debacle, Strauss and a wounded and fragmented England side emerged from the ashes a severely weakened and fragile side. Strauss led his team to the almost inevitable series loss away to the West Indies and began, with new interim coach Andy Flower, the redevelopment process to exorcise the England team of its demons and reset its Sat Nav to display 'destination: number 1 Test team in the world'.
Flower, now the full time coach, and Strauss led England to an impressive 2-1 home Ashes victory over the Aussies. Strauss particularly succeeded, leading the run-charts for the series and captaining England with wisdom and consideration. England were now on their way under the two Andy's. Their 1-1 drawn series away to South Africa showed the world that England meant business, and while Strauss himself struggled, the emergence of the likes of Cook, Trott, Bell, Prior, Broad, Swann and Anderson as seriously impressive cogs in the England machine spoke volumes of Strauss' impassable man-management skills.
Having sat out of the tour to Bangladesh in 2010 - thus giving young Alastair Cook (Strauss' protégé) some time at the helm - Strauss captained his country to wins over Bangladesh and Pakistan at home in the run-up to the much-awaited Ashes Series Down Under. England landed in Australia with high hopes, and even higher expectations. The series started as badly as possible for England's skipper. Out to the 3rd ball of the series, Strauss watched as his team earned a positive draw at Brisbane, before the tourists really hit their stride, pummeling the Aussies at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to retain the Ashes with a dominating 3-1 series victory. Strauss and his team were on cloud nine; they were at their peak, their powers at the complete zenith.
The World Cup proved ultimately disappointing (as always) for England, but Strauss' 158 against India in the tied game in Bangalore was a personal high for Strauss, who retired from the format after the competition with 127 games and 4200 runs to his name at an average of 35+. England now had their sights trained eagerly on the likes of Sri Lanka and India in their efforts to ascend the Test rankings and reach the number 1 ranking. An emphatic 4-0 home victory over India gave England the scepter, and although Strauss' powers with the bat were waning, he was in no danger of departing the Test scene.
The first signs of trouble in paradise begin to show themselves as England crash to a humiliating 3-0 sub-continental loss to Pakistan, a series which proved an apt barometer of England's complete ignorance of how to play spin bowling. By now, Strauss really was struggling with bat as he bagman to look more and more like a Test cricketer in his mid-thirties. A brief interlude from his poor form against the West Indies provided the man a satisfying twilight to his career, which came off the back of a convincing drubbing from the touring South African side who, with their 2-0 series win, replaced England as the number 1 Test side.
Strauss retired after the series, leaving the younger generation of captain Cook to take the reins and lead England into a new chapter. A new chapter that will surely be more predictable than the one in store for England when Strauss took the captaincy with the side in tatters. Andrew Strauss, 3-times Ashes winner and 4th in the all time England century scorers, has done a fine job. He came into an unfulfilled team in the mid 2000s and left them as genuine contenders for the number 1 title in all three formats. His captaincy, while not everyone's cup of tea, was steady and reliable - just what was required. His batting has never been his defining feature. His character and temperament say so much more about a man without whom England would certainly not be where they are today.
Andrew Strauss, we thank you.