Andrew Strauss: Aussies won't just hand us the urn
Former England captain tells Stephen Brenkley tourists have a strong bowling line-up... but he still fancies the home side to win the Ashes 3-1
Andrew Strauss, who knows a thing or two about how the Ashes are won, had a word of warning about Australia. "I don't think they're quite as bad a side as people are making them out to be," he says.
There in a crisp, no-nonsense style, as if he were clipping one off his legs, he had it. Whatever has happened in the past six months, indeed in the past few days, however much turbulence seems to have overtaken these tourists, no matter that the odds with some bookmakers are 3-1 on for England, which is in the realms of fantasy, Strauss recognises that they are still the Australia cricket team and all that entails.
"England won't be taking them lightly," he says. "They know what an Ashes series is like, they know the pressures that go alongside an Ashes series and I think they've got some idea also about the extra pressures of being favourites for an Ashes series which is a different dynamic and not an easy one to deal with and they'll be very keen to start the series well."
Despite Strauss's warnings about the Australians' toughness he is aware that the balance between the sides has shifted. England, who lost eight series in a row between 1989 and 2003, have now won three of the last four. They are no longer afraid.
Australia are beleaguered. Their captain, Michael Clarke, only returned to action today after his ailing back consigned him to the treatment room since the squad's arrival for the Champions Trophy. Three days ago, they sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, because of concerns about form and the culture of the dressing room.
"There are vulnerabilities there and England's bowling line-up in particular will be looking at some of their inexperienced batsmen and saying: 'listen, we can exploit that'," says Strauss. "Graeme Swann, against all their left-handers, will have an important role to play and also Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad with the new ball.
"I think Australia have a very strong bowling line-up and someone like Mitchell Starc could have a big impact on the Ashes series. But there are going to be a lot of players who are playing for their positions in the side alongside all the obvious pressures which come with an Ashes series. They'll have to start the series well and show England they are willing to take the fight to them. If they don't do that they're going to be in for a long summer and winter."
Strauss played in four Ashes series of which three were won, two of them as captain, home and away. It was his initial intention to do a fifth and a sixth but when his form deserted him last year he knew it was time to go.
He left a team which had become accustomed to winning (until what proved to be his final series, against South Africa) and in which every player knew what they were supposed to be doing and what was expected of them. It was not, however, a settled dressing room on his departure.
The Kevin Pietersen issue has been swept under the carpet by England, referred to by the head honchos at the England and Wales Cricket Board as archaeology. Doubtless, it is one of many reasons that Pietersen's media appearances are now so strictly controlled since some cricket reporters would rightly refuse to stop digging.
Strauss said: "I don't know whether he's being shielded or he's just not that keen on talking to the media at the moment. Maybe he wants his bat to do the talking from now on and I'm sure he's going out of his way to avoid controversy at the moment given what's gone on in the last 18 months or so.
"Clearly everyone wants to hear what he has to say on a huge array of topics but maybe for the time being he's saying: 'listen I'll just keep a low profile and hopefully bat well and make sure I'm doing all I can to support Andy Flower and Alastair Cook'. If he's approaching it that way then I don't blame him quite frankly."
It will be intriguing to see what Strauss has to say about Pietersen in his autobiography which he has now finished and which will be published this autumn. He was shocked when it emerged during the imbroglio last summer that Pietersen had apparently sent text messages to members of the South African opposition deriding Strauss. It was the last chapter of the book that he wrote.
Like many of his predecessors as England captain, Strauss will be in the Sky commentary box this season, opining on the performances of those with whom he once played. He will be expected to criticise as well as praise, something that might be hard to do.
"I think there's going to be the odd moment when it's difficult," he says. "I suppose one of the reasons I've been brought in is I'm a little more current and I maybe understand the thinking in the England dressing room a little bit more.
"My job as much as anything is going to be to explain to people some of the contemporary ways of thinking about the game. I'm sure some of the time my own thinking will be aligned with Andy Flower and Alastair Cook, but occasionally it won't be and that's my job to give my opinions on things."
Strauss is full of admiration for Cook, his successor as captain. There are some who view Cook as a chip off the old block, tactically conservative, waiting for things to happen, commanding the respect of those around him, a solid character.
"I think he approaches things in a similar way to be honest with you," Strauss says. "Just knowing him as a character I think he's got his own ideas on the game but he's probably seen the way we've played over the last five or six years and is trying to develop on that and evolve it over time. I'm sure he will do so. I think he's done tremendously well. It's a big challenge for anyone captaining England and the first 12 months or so you're in charge you learn a lot about yourself, what the job demands actually are and he seems to have taken it all in his stride.
"He knows as well as anyone that this summer is going to be a different level in terms of attention, expectation and demands on his time and he'll have to deal with that well otherwise it's going to be a very tiring six months or so for him."
Strauss also urges England to prepare drier pitches for Swann to exploit, turning the ball away from the four left-handed batsmen who the tourists may well have in their top order. He was by no means denigrating Nathan Lyons, Australia's off-spinner, but Swann is a class act who England should exploit.
Strauss's natural loyalty to men he played alongside until less than a year ago would presumably not allow him to predict anything other than an England win. But there is more to his assessment than that.
Under his stewardship, continued by Cook under the vigilant eye of Flower, there was a marked shift in the psyche of the England cricketer. Sometimes it is possible to think that they are not as good as they think they are but that may be no bad thing. They are comfortable with themselves.
"I think when you worry about being favourites, that is when, deep down, you're thinking: 'I'm not sure we're playing that well and everyone thinks we're brilliant'.
"That's when you start having some question marks. From what I've seen of England recently, I think they're in a pretty good place. I'm going for 3-1 in England. I think England are the better side."
From the man who knows the team better than anyone, caveats and all, that was less a hopeful prediction than a cool analysis.
2005 Opening the batting with Marcus Trescothick, Strauss enjoyed two centuries (106 & 126) finishing the series with an average of 39.30. Well remembered for taking six catches in the series including ‘the abiding image of the summer’ in the dismissal of Adam Gilchrist in the Fourth Test at Trent Bridge. (England won 2-1)
2007 Andrew Flintoff was chosen ahead of Strauss as captain for the series in Australia. In a disappointing series for England, Strauss with new opening partner Alistair Cook struggled to produce any form. He finished with an average of 24.70, with his highest score of 50 coming in the Fourth Test at Melbourne. (Australia won 5-0)
2009 After the disappointment of the 2007 series, Strauss was given the captaincy and led his side to a 2-1 series win. With an average of 52.33, he enjoyed just one century, a knock of 161 in the Second Test at Lord’s. (England won 2-1)
2011 Andrew became only the third England captain to win Ashes series home and away, as he led his England side to a 3-1 victory in Australia. He scored his only century of the series (110) in the First Test in Brisbane. After two half-centuries in the Fourth and Fifth tests he finished with an average of 43.85. (England won 3-1)
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