How the world turns. Little more than a year ago, in a small provincial town in New Zealand, Andrew Strauss was one innings away from the end of his international career. On Wednesday in the still more improbable setting of the capital of Wales, he will be the captain of England in the Ashes.
It is the stuff that dreams are made of. It was only stuff and nonsense when Strauss went out to bat to salvage everything in Napier 16 months ago. He had made a duck in the first innings and the borrowed time that English batting was on was about to have him as the first instalment of the payback. But he made a savvy 177.
There have been another six hundreds since, and because of this and other tumultuous matters he arrives at Cardiff, of all places, on Wednesday holding the highest position in English sport in its most historic international contest. "It seems like 18 years ago," he said as he reflected briefly. "Such a lot has happened in those 18 months. Then, I was very much trying to focus on my own game and trying to justify my place in the side. Thankfully over time I have played better and thankfully I have had other things to think about, which has helped my game. I have thor-oughly enjoyed doing the job and as I sit here today I am massively excited about what is to come."
What is to come is the attempt to regain the Ashes at the first time of asking. For reasons never satisfactorily explained – except that the Welsh in the shape of Glamorgan County Cricket Club made the highest bid – England will start trying to do this at Sophia Gardens, newly revamped and an unknown quantity to both sides.
Strauss, appointed as the port of last resort after Michael Vaughan had resigned and Kevin Pietersen had been deposed in the space of six months, may be the right man by default. In his six months and seven Tests in the job, all of them against West Indies, he has cut a mightily authoritative and thoughtful figure. But what begins on Wednesday and will continue until 24 August at the latest is something else entirely.
"Anybody who goes in there and just thinks 'Oh, we'll just stick to our own game' is going to come unstuck," Strauss said. "Our players are absolutely certain that they will go out there and go blow for blow. There's a fine line between aggression and being over the top so we have to check that line carefully. I think we know the type of cricket we need to play to beat the Aussies, we just need to go out and play it."
The type of cricket will not be for the faint-hearted and nor should it be. Australia did not get where they are (or rather were) only by having some of the best cricketers the world has ever known. They also developed to a quite magisterial level their traditional ability to play tough cricket, to work ceaselessly on opponents' perceived weaknesses.
Nothing wrong in that, it is part of the fun, but opponents have to reply in kind. Do not think that England became the side they did under Nasser Hussain and Vaughan by asking their opponents if there was anything they could do to make life at the crease more comfortable. "Water, mate? Can I move that sightscreen for you?"
Do not make the mistake of thinking that because Strauss was educated at one of the smarter English public schools (Radley) and one of the oldest universities (Durham) and can probably decline Latin verbs, that he is a soft touch. He will not be stepping backwards.
"I don't really want to talk about it too much at this stage," he said. "We have got our plans for how we're going to contend with the Aussies but there's no doubt that if you want to play well against Australia you have got to take them on and be prepared to scrap."
Strauss has to set the example as leader, in the way that Hussain and Vaughan did in exemplary style. His team have to know that they can rely on him in a crisis and trust him in any circumstances.
"One of the things that is fundamental to my captaincy and that I have talked a lot about is player responsibility and allowing players to make decisions for themselves – not encouraging them but making them make decisions for themselves.
"I like where we're at. We're not going to know for certain till we go out there but the signs are good and I like the characters we have got in the side. I don't see that there are any characters that are going to be open to exploitation, and that's vital."
Strauss's batting has thrived on captaincy so far but he knows that Australia will seek to undermine him immediately. Get the captain and you get much more besides. Strauss and Alastair Cook are essential elements in the campaign. Cook, as he was in the West Indies, will be vice-captain, which puts him a broken little finger away from the leadership. The Aussies will want to get him as well.
"The opening batting is going to be important because it sets the platform," said Strauss. "Both sets of openers are going to be under pressure early and how we react to that is going to be important."
England appear to have two outstanding advantages: they are at home, and Australia are not what they used to be. "I think being at home is important, especially for those Australians who haven't played here before," said Strauss. "The conditions are very different. We should know them better and we should be able to adapt to them better. It's a definite advantage and when you look round world cricket these days, being at home counts hugely."
Australia have lost so many iconic cricketers that they must, by definition, be weaker. Strauss reinforced the point with a list. "It's not just Warne and McGrath," he said. "You can add Gilchrist and Hayden and Langer into the mix as well. When you look at the Australians of two years ago and even four years ago, there were some of the legends of the game, certainly of our generation and probably in Warne and McGrath's case of all time.
"The Australian system is always a good one, they always produce good players but it's a huge loss for any side to take," said Strauss. "Just for the experience those guys had as well as their wicket-taking deliveries, their ability to score runs, their presence on the park. All three of those are massive things to replace and at the moment their replacements don't have that aura about them. But we haven't seen much of them so it's hard for us to comment at this stage." Can't comment, but we can deduce what he's thinking.
England will look to play five bowlers throughout the series and will not baulk at playing two spinners, as they probably will do at Cardiff on Wednesday. But whoever plays, Strauss must judge the mood and the moment. "The first morning is a time for us to be calm and play our cricket, not get carried away with what's going on. There are a lot of times in your career where you need to find intensity from somewhere and bring yourselves up for the occasions. That is not going to be one of those occasions."
It will be tough, and sometimes it will be unbearable. The team are not yet properly formed. But under a captain whose time has come, England can prevail and bring back the Ashes.
Life and times
Name Andrew John Strauss.
Born 2 March 1977, Johannesburg.
Height 5ft 11in.
Education Moved to England aged six and went to a public school, Radley College, before earning a degree in economics at Durham University, causing much mirth in later life in the Middlesex and England dressing rooms.
Family Has two children with Australian wife Ruth McDonald, Samuel (three and a half) and Luca (11 months).
Test debut In May 2004 at Lord's Strauss hit a century (112 from 215 balls) against New Zealand.
Ashes history In 2005, he made a crucial 129 in the final Test at The Oval, his highest Ashes score, and finished with almost 400 runs in the series. However, he struggled in the 2006-07 rematch Down Under when a series of ordinary shots and poor umpiring left him with just 247 runs in the series. He is yet to hit a six in 20 Test innings against Australia.
Extras In his role as president of the Primary Club Juniors, a charity focused on funding cricket for the blind, he took part in a game wearing a blindfold in 2006 at Linden Lodge (one of London's leading schools for the blind and visually impaired). He was dismissed second ball.
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