Andrew Strauss: Behind the mask
Andrew Strauss likes to keep himself to himself, but is finding it increasingly difficult during an Ashes series that is gripping the nation. In a rare interview he talks about fame, shane and a machine called Merlyn
The second reason is not one that would interest Kevin Pietersen - anonymity. Helmets are the principal reason why spectators tend to relate to bowlers more than batsmen. When bowlers are at work it is easy to see their every emotion. Television picks up the frustration of watching the ball edged down to third man for four, the anger of having an appeal turned down and the joy of taking a wicket.
A batsman's inner thoughts, on the other hand, are generally hidden behind the metal grille which protects their face. It is only when they rip it off on scoring a hundred that you see what is behind the mask.
Anonymity is something Strauss craves, but during this unforgettable Ashes series - one that has grabbed the attention of a football-mad nation and turned cricketers into superstars - it is not something he can always achieve.
"On Wednesday night I went to the local curry house for a quiet meal and got badgered by about 15 people," Strauss tells me over a cup of coffee at his house in Ealing. "I don't mind that too much but it does make it harder to refresh your brain and stop thinking about the cricket. I shouldn't complain though, I don't get as much of it as some. As a batsman you spend so much time with your helmet on, and people don't recognise you quite as much as the others."
Attempting to relax and get away from the euphoria which surrounds this thrilling series has become difficult. Yet it is something most of England's players have been endeavouring to achieve during their rare days away from a cricket ground.
"I went into this series with my eyes open," Strauss admits. "I talked to players before the series started and they said that playing against Australia is different to anyone else - the way the cricket is played, the pressure from the media, the expectation from the public. I expected it to be very hard but the toughness of the cricket, in a good way, has surprised me.
"Everyone feels very privileged to be playing in a series like this but it certainly takes a bit of getting used to. The guys who have played a lot of Test cricket are saying that this is far tougher than anything they have experienced before, but if you can come through this series you can cope with anything.
"It is not just the on-field stuff that exhausts you. The off-field stuff also takes a lot of dealing with as well. I have so far found the playing part of this series the easiest bit because it is your day job and this is what you do day in and day out. When you are out there, you are in the moment so you don't have time to think about things going badly. It is when you are away from the pitch, and in the days leading up to a match that your mind can wander and you think about how things could go if they went badly."
One of Strauss's many strengths is his ability to put things into perspective. He is aware that he is playing a leading role in one of the most remarkable Ashes series ever, but he also realises that, in the end, it is still only a game of cricket. Yet even he is finding it hard to leave his work at the office.
"Generally I am quite good at not taking my cricket home with me," he says, before laughing at my presence in his dining room. "In this series more than any it is important to try and completely forget about the cricket when you are away from the games. It is a pressurised series but if you let it, it can affect your life away from the game. I am trying as hard as possible not to let that happen."
I ask him how he could do this, when everybody in England seems to be going Ashes crazy.
"By escorting you to the front door and telling you to piss off. That would be a start," he says, playfully, I think.
"No, I try and do the things I would normally do when I am away from the games. Between the first and second Test Ruth [his pregnant wife] and I went up to the Lake District for a couple of days. Of course, your mind occasionally flicks back to what has happened and forward to what might happen, but if you don't surround yourself with cricketers, avoid the papers and stay away from the television it is easier."
Following England's two-run victory at Edgbaston and the remarkable draw at Old Trafford, England enter Thursday's fourth Test at Trent Bridge with the momentum firmly behind them. Australia are a rattled side. Their destructive batting line-up appears vulnerable against the pace of Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Stephen Harmison, and one bowler - Jason Gillespie - has been smashed out of the series.
Few would have predicted the series would be so delicately poised after the first Test at Lord's a match England lost by 239 runs. However, Strauss insists that even at the time he was not especially concerned. "I didn't think we had to do a great deal after the defeat at Lord's because we had played so far below the standards we had set ourselves over the last 18 months," he says. "We knew that if we played to our potential we would do a lot better at Edgbaston. We also gained a lot of motivation from some of the things that had been said and written about us.
"We knew in ourselves that we had not turned into a bad side overnight, and sometimes it helps having that extra little bit of motivation. Cricketers, like anyone else, can have a bad day - it is the nature of the beast. Even now, after playing well for two Tests, it is tempting to say that the tide is turned, but it is probably better to reserve all judgements on both sides until the end of the series."
At Lord's, England's batsmen looked dumbfounded against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and it was difficult to see how they were going to post a competitive total in the series. But the freak injury McGrath sustained before the start of the second Test, when he trod on a ball, changed the series.
"There were moments in the one-day series when we felt we were competing as equals but the most important moment of the series was the first day at Edgbaston when we scored 400 runs at five an over. It was almost unheard for an Australian side to concede that many runs in a day, and knowing that we could dominate an Australian attack containing Shane Warne was a big psychological breakthrough for our batsmen.
"There have been a number of occasions when their batting line-up has looked uncomfortable against our bowling. It has not been a one-off and that tells its own story. We believe we can do it again and again and again. Hopefully, the wickets and the conditions will allow us to continue doing this for the remainder of the series."
Each member of Michael Vaughan's team has had a traumatic experience against the Aussies this summer and Strauss, like most of the others, has come through the ordeal. Self-doubt is not a sensation Strauss would have felt during his short Test career - he entered the Ashes with a batting average of 55. But low scores in the first two Tests, and taunts from Warne about his ability to play leg-spin, suddenly placed him under pressure. Some players would seek the help of a sports psychologist, others would try and pretend their was no problem and do little, but Strauss kidnapped Merlyn - a bowling machine which is capable of replicating Warne's bowling - and practised diligently for three days before the Test at Old Trafford.
"It was hugely satisfying," said Strauss, recalling the moment when he reached three figures. "The Australians are very good at playing with you through the press, and I knew myself that I had not played Warne particularly well in the previous two Test matches. It is very satisfying when you go away and work on something, and then see it come into fruition. Playing against Australia is tough because they possess some of the best bowlers in the world, and you know they will give your technique and temperament a thorough test.
And does Merlyn do a good impression of Shane?
"It is virtually impossible to fully replicate Warne but this is the closest I have seen. In times gone by you would have to get a promising under-19 bowler or a second-XI bowler to come along to practice how to play leg-spin and if you want the ball in a certain area you would invariably get a long hop or a knee-high full toss. With Merlyn you can get the ball to pitch almost exactly where you want.
"It has a lot of revs on it, and it gets a similar amount of bounce but it doesn't get the drift he gets or replicate the slider delivery he bowls. But you can bat against it all day and come out a better player. It has been a massive addition for us and it will be so for the winter."
And it doesn't sledge either.
"No, but that is an important thing about playing Warne. You have to play the ball and not the man. In the past a lot of players have fallen into the trap of either trying to smack him out of the attack because of something he has said, or going into their shell."
Warne came up to Strauss and said, "Well played, mate," when he reached his century; a nice illustration of a hugely competitive series that has been played in the right spirit. Earlier Strauss had been struck by the sportsman ship of the Australians who came into England's dressing-room at Edgbaston to congratulate them on their victory.
"It impressed us when they came into our dressing room at Edgbaston. I have played against four other Test nations and we have not done that at all. "
England reciprocated at Old Trafford, when the tourists were delighted to have held out for a draw, a trip, Strauss admits, he was initially reluctant to make.
"It was hard at first," he admits. "It was the last thing I felt like doing because I just wanted to go [home]. But when you go down there for a beer, suddenly the game does not feel that important. You are also getting their side of the story, and it puts it in some sort of perspective. It is a great thing to do but it is very hard when you have lost, to swallow your pride and walk into the winning team's dressing-room."
What comes across more than anything is the respect the sides now have for one another. "Australians don't respect players on reputation," he says. "They respect players who have done well against them. It is what Michael Vaughan has done in the past, and it was nice to win that myself. Hopefully, I can do it again."
Test career of England's opener
Test Debut V New Zealand 2004
Lord's (debut): 112 & 83
Headingley: 62 & 10
Trent Bridge: 0 & 6
Total runs: 273
West Indies 2004
Lord's: 137 & 35
Edgbaston: 24 & 5
Old Trafford: 90 & 12
Oval: 14 & 0*
Total runs: 317
South Africa Tour, 2004-05
Port Elizabeth: 126 & 94*
Durban: 25 & 136
Cape Town: 45 & 39
Johannesburg: 147 & 0
Centurion: 44 & 0
Total runs: 656
Total runs: 77
Lord's: 2 & 37
Edgbaston: 48 & 6
Old Trafford: 6 & 106
Total runs: 205
Not out: 2
Highest score: 147
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