Few captains take the helm when the good ship England is sailing serenely through calm waters – otherwise their predecessors would not have been pushed off the plank – but the circumstances in which Andrew Strauss was handed the role at the start of this year were testing in the extreme. Captain Imperturbable tied himself to the wheel of a vessel that had not so much sprung a leak as been the victim of an attempted scuttling. Coach and previous skipper had gone amid a storm of controversy, while on the field the side had been embarrassed by the Stanford fiasco and well beaten in India off the back of a home defeat by South Africa. Even given English cricket's uncanny ability to steer towards the rocks this was a crisis.
Twelve Tests, 18 one-day internationals and the gamut of emotions on from that dark January day when he was unveiled at Lord's, Strauss, barring the odd selectorial duty, finally has time to draw breath and consider a life-changing nine months. The captaincy, he says, is "all encompassing", a job from which it is next to impossible to switch off. Bat or bowl? Harmison or Onions? Third slip or gully? The questions seem never to end and the next test is always around the corner.
"I'm pretty unflappable," he writes in his new autobiography, Testing Times, and after his first season in charge that has never been in less doubt. He is now an Ashes-winning captain and enjoying his best run of form in his primary role as a batsman, but he has also watched his side bowled out for 51, overseen one of the worst one-day series defeats there has been and admitted to being "humiliated and embarrassed" after another limited-over battering.
"It seems really bizarre," says Strauss when asked to cast his mind back over the peaks, and troughs, that have littered his stewardship. "First of all taking over the captaincy – I didn't think it was a possibility. It wasn't ideal circumstances at all but there have been some incredible personal highlights. I've been in good form with the bat – it's probably been my best year for England. And on top of that winning the Ashes is incredible to have experienced as England captain."
The beginning was chaotic. "The Pietersen and Moores issue was public and not particularly pleasant," recalls Strauss of the circumstances surrounding his dramatic elevation to a role he had previously occupied as a caretaker for the injured Michael Vaughan in 2006. "We didn't know what was to come. No one was sure whether the coach was going to stay or the captain was going to stay, whether there might be mediation. It was only when it all came to a head that I realised I might be taking over. I had no doubts, but I had to think about it. I had to speak to various people, including Kevin Pietersen, and had to be clear with my family as to what it entailed. It wasn't something I wanted to say yes to on the spur of the moment, I had to think about it carefully."
He had been a contender for the position prior to the previous Ashes series, the disastrous trip Down Under three years ago, but Andrew Flintoff was preferred. "In some ways maybe it was a blessing in disguise," says Strauss. "I was keen to do the job at that stage but Flintoff was the next guy in line and he deserved to have his go. I certainly felt taking over this time it was the right time for me to do it – that gives you a bit more confidence as captain as well... this is your opportunity and the players are behind you. That was an important part of it."
All talk of a divided dressing room that accompanied Pietersen's attempted coup against Peter Moores has disappeared. That may be down to Strauss's leadership or the simple unifying force of success, but his team-mates cannot but have been impressed by their captain's contribution with the bat. Against Australia he scored nearly twice as many runs as Matt Prior, England's second highest scorer in the Ashes, and that off the back of three hundreds in the Caribbean, albeit it in a losing cause. His form in the one-day game, a format which he returned to after a gap of two years, produced one century and four fifties as, in the absence of Pietersen, he rapidly became England's key wicket.
It is as a leader, though, that he is now defined. "I've thoroughly enjoyed it actually," he says. "There have been some real testing times. Look at the Headingley Test [when England lost in two-and-a-half days] – that was a time when things could have fallen apart quite nastily. But we stuck together. You don't have to be best mates, but you have to be a tight unit and one of the things I'm most optimistic about is the group of players we've got.
"The things that are strongest in my memory are the win at Lord's, which started the process of us believing we could win the series. We'd just hung on at Cardiff and then to win at Lord's after such a long time gave us a huge amount of confidence. The really vivid moment in my mind is that spell of Stuart Broad's at The Oval, which finally swung the pendulum our way. The buzz on the field that day... we started thinking, 'hold on, this is meant to be'."
Strauss has a short break before England return to South Africa next month to face the world's No 1 ranked side, what he dutifully states will be his biggest test as captain. But, as ever in English cricket, it is impossible to prevent thoughts drifting towards the next Ashes, in Australia a year from now. "How we are going to retain them out there is a big question," said Strauss. Answer that one and he will have to answer no more.
'Testing Times' by Andrew Strauss is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £19.99
Leading from the front: Strauss in numbers
Andrew John Strauss
Born: 2 March 1977, Johannesburg
County: Middlesex (1998-present)
Test debut v New Zealand (Lord's), May 2004
Matches: 67 Innings 23 Runs 5,266 Highest Score 177 v NZ, March 2008 Average 44.62 100s 18 50s 17
Record as Test captain: Matches 12 Won 4 Lost 2 Drawn 6
One-day debut v Sri Lanka (Dambulla), November 2003 Matches 96 Innings 95 Runs 2,814 High score 152 v Bangladesh, June 2005 Average 32.34 100s 3 50s 18
From despair to here: Captain's mixed year
7 January Appointed captain of England's Test and one-day sides.
Feb-Mar England bowled out for 51 by West Indies in Strauss' first Test as captain. Loses series 1-0.
May Records 2-0 series victory over West Indies on home soil.
16 July Makes 161 as England win Lord's Test against Australia for first time in 75 years.
9 August Loses fourth Ashes Test at Headingley in under three days.
23 August Reclaims Ashes after victory in fifth Test at The Oval.
September Thrashed 6-1 in home ODI series by Australia.
2 October Australia beat England in ICC Champions Trophy semi-final.