Andrew Strauss: 'I like to think I will have an opportunity to captain the England team again'

Brian Viner Interviews: He's relaxed about missing out on the Ashes captaincy, but the England opener has firm views about leadership, public school accents and which side his (Australian) wife will be supporting this winter
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The Independent Online

If Andrew Strauss is a disappointed man, lamenting the news that England's cricket selectors have overlooked him in favour of restoring Andrew Flintoff to the captaincy in Australia this winter, then physiologically there is no sign. And I use the word "physiologically" advisedly. When Strauss first came into the England team, he was remorselessly teased about his public-school education, and calculatedly played up to it by using long words.

These days Matthew Hoggard is the only one who won't let the subject drop.

"He calls me PT," says Strauss, coyly. "It, erm, stands for 'Posh Twat'." A laugh. "We get on fine, actually."

Perhaps it is Strauss' upper lip, stiffened in the dorms at Radley, that helps him to conceal any disappointment the opening batsman might feel at losing the captaincy. We are sitting in the bar of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington on the very day of the announcement, yet his smile shows no sign of fading even when I point out the back-page headline in the day's Independent, over an article by his old Middlesex team-mate Angus Fraser: "Andrew Flintoff is set to be named England's captain for the Ashes today, but it should have been Andrew Strauss".

"Look," he says. A lot of his sentences begin with the word, "look", which at first I mistake for slight pique, but in fact it's just a verbal tic. "I've already read that, and it's been gratifying that sports writers have enjoyed writing about it. There has been very polarised opinion, which shows that it was a difficult decision for the selectors, but I'm sure they made the decision for the right reasons."

Graciously put, but surely he must be privately miffed? After all, he did a marvellous job of captaining England against Pakistan in Flintoff's absence, and nor did his batting suffer. Indeed, he scored a century at Lord's on his Test debut as captain, just as he did on his Test debut as an England player, against New Zealand. Remarkably, that debut was scarcely more than two years ago, which makes one wonder at the sub-title of his excellent new book Coming Into Play: My Life in Test Cricket. It's hardly been a life. Yet this is demonstrably a man who rises both to responsibility and the big occasion. Perfect captaincy material, in other words.

"Look, I like to think I will have an opportunity to captain the England team again," he says. "This was not about a leadership contest. It's about 16 guys keen as mustard to retain the Ashes. As captains I think Fred [Flintoff] and I both have plenty of attributes, but they are very different. I think your characteristics as a captain are your characteristics as a person and if, as captain, you do something foreign to your character, you'll come unstuck very quickly.

"Fred is very much 'up and at 'em'. He has a great ability to get people up for a challenge, and one of the captain's primary jobs is to get people ready for a Test match. I can do that, too, but I suppose I do it in a more thoughtful way. I find it interesting intellectually to think how I'm going to get the best out of the players. It can't always be a big Churchillian speech. Sometimes it's just a couple of jokes. Whatever you feel the team needs on the day."

And, presumably, different players need different treatment? "Yeah, and our psychologist Steve Bull has done some really interesting work on the types of characters in the side, and what works best with those types. Fred's way is more instinctive. The point is that there are many ways to lead a team."

Whichever of them does - and given Flintoff's recurring injury problems, he is by no means guaranteed to be the man leading England out in Brisbane on 23 November - the 29-year-old Strauss has no illusions about the task in store.

"It's fair to assume that it will be the biggest challenge any of us will face in our careers, the cricket more intense than anything we have experienced before. There will be a lot of tests on and off the field. But the pot of gold is that it could be one of the great highlights of all our careers. To retain the Ashes there would be an even more significant achievement than winning them in England."

And will Mrs Strauss, his Australian wife Ruth, have mixed emotions? He's parried that question more than once before. "She's a passionate England supporter these days. And her family have been very supportive of me, too."

As someone who knows only what it is to open the batting for Southport Trinity second XI in slight drizzle at Standish, I am intrigued, I tell him, to hear what will be going through his mind when he strides out, perhaps at the start of the entire series, at the Gabba? Can he compare it with anything of which the rest of us might have some experience? A pause. "Yes, it's very similar to turning over an exam paper. You've done a lot of preparation, but you don't really know what lies in front of you.

"There's that slight sickly feeling. You think, 'Shit, what if I turn the paper over and find something completely unexpected?' Opening in a Test match is the same. Nine times out of 10 you're asked the questions you've prepared for, but occasionally someone comes up with something different. Maybe they'll start with a different bowler from the one you're expecting, or attack you in a different way, and then you've got to do things on the hop. But there was a phrase that came out before the last Ashes series - never put your body in a place your mind hasn't been first. In other words, you almost imagine a series of worst-case scenarios, and then you're better placed to deal with whatever comes your way."

And how well placed will his opening batting partner, Marcus Trescothick, be to deal with the unique pressure of an Ashes tour, given his reported difficulties with stress? "Look, he's a good friend of mine and I've talked to him about it," Strauss says. "He's had a hard time and there are some issues he's still addressing, but there's no reason to think he won't come through it. He's a strong cricketer mentally - you don't play 70 Tests, averaging 45 or so, without being strong - and my personal belief is that he will come through this and contribute greatly to the Ashes this winter."

But the Australians, surely, will make hay from Trescothick's perceived frailties? "They'll make hay with all of us for different reasons. We'll just have to deal with that. I don't think the Australians are particularly worse [at sledging] than any other team, and it has never overly bothered me, partly because it's not my style to court it. One of my strengths is that I don't get distracted. I get on with my batting and have a laugh about it afterwards. You can take these things too seriously. Guys only say things because they're hoping for a reaction, and if they don't get one they will very quickly get bored."

The Australians know from painful experience that Strauss' concentration rarely wavers. It might be Kevin Pietersen's second-innings fireworks that dominate memories of the deciding Ashes Test at the Oval just over 12 months ago, but it's also worth remembering that Strauss, in the biggest match of his life, scored a first-day 129. On the other hand, the Australians will remember the identity of the man who took his wicket twice at the Oval, twice at Trent Bridge, and twice at Edgbaston: Shane Warne.

On which devilish subject, I ask whether Merlyn, the Warne copycat bowling machine, is making the journey to Australia? "There's a good chance. I don't think it's been finalised yet. Shane Warne will certainly provide huge challenges for all of us in Australia. The most important thing with him is to have a secure game plan, to be locked into playing him a certain way. You've got to be confident. You can't sit there and wait for him to bowl a bad ball because he very rarely does. But those are the challenges that as Test cricketers we relish. I'm facing the best: can I come up with a way of playing it?"

So much for the winter ahead, what of the summer just gone? First of all, what was his take on the regrettable denouement at the Oval, and Pakistan's forfeiture of the match amid ball-tampering allegations? "Look, we were focussing on getting ourselves out of a tight hole, not on the ball. Events unravelled pretty quickly. One minute the umpires were changing the ball, the next thing we knew the Pakistanis weren't coming out of their dressing-room. It was deeply unpleasant and a bad day for cricket, but not the worst day ever for cricket. It got blown right out of proportion. Match-fixing is far worse."

Then let's change the subject. How proud was he earlier in the series to have joined the slim ranks of those who have scored a Test century on their debut as England captain? Does he even know who the others are? "I think Allan Lamb was one, although he only captained in one or two Tests. No, look, those things don't interest me. There's always some stat like the highest number of runs on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon. It's pretty irrelevant."

Pardon me, but there's nothing irrelevant about scoring a century in your first Test as captain, at Lord's. "Well, sure, it's important as a captain that you play well. Martin Johnson was very big on that from a rugby point of view. His first job was to play well, because it gives you more authority if you're asking guys to do things and doing them yourself.

"I found that if anything the captaincy helped my batting, because it made me think more about the game situation. In the second innings at Headingley, we all knew we had to get over 300 runs in front, but as captain it was important that I set the tone. I got to 50, and told myself how important it was that I went on to get 100. It makes you that tiny bit more driven. But the match I was most proud of was Old Trafford, when we finally realised we were going to be without Fred for the series. That was a massive hole for us, but we had to instil positive thoughts. I don't know how much of that was to do with Fletch [the coach Duncan Fletcher] and the management, how much with the players, but the attitude in that match was first-rate. There was a real feeling of togetherness. As captain that was very satisfying."

I ask him, finally, whether he thinks a captain should, in an ideal world, also be an opening batsman? Or for that matter - a leading question - whether a captain should also be the team's all-rounder, with such burdens already on his shoulders? Mentioning no names, of course.

He smiles. "Mike Brearley in his book about captaincy said a captain should ideally bat four or five, because it's hard work at the end of the opposition innings getting wickets 9 and 10 when you're also thinking about going out to bat. But I don't think it matters. The right man for the job will do it well, and the advantage of being an all-rounder, like Fred, is that you're always in the game."

It is characteristically generous of him to say so, not that Strauss cites Flintoff as the best captain under whom he has played. That accolade belongs, and probably always will, to Michael Vaughan.

"He keeps a positive vibe in the dressing-room at all times, he's not overly emotional, and he combines the friend and father figure very well. People feel comfortable talking to him." The message is that against the Aussies, Vaughan will be a hard act for anyone to follow. Even Flintoff. Even Strauss.

Coming Into Play: My Life in Test Cricket by Andrew Strauss, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99)

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