James Lawton: This is no time for Strauss to leave his side – Pietersen and Broad need him

When Mike Atherton suffered a slide in his own performance he worked relentlessly in the nets
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The Independent Online

Three former England captains, David Gower, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, have now deplored here the decision of their successor Andrew Strauss to take a break from the tour of Bangladesh.

They have suggested it is something occupying the uneasy ground between self-indulgence and dereliction of duty.

This, some may say, is a harsh verdict. The agreeable Strauss has, after all, had a hard year and one that in many ways has been an outstanding success.

He picked his way impressively through the chaos that followed Kevin Pietersen's loss of the captaincy and a numbing series defeat in the Caribbean inflicted by a West Indies team just one place off the bottom of the world rankings.

He found a way to win the Ashes and even if Sunday's defeat in the cavern of the Wanderers ground was nothing less than an evisceration, tying 1-1 with world No 2-rated South Africa is not exactly a catastrophe – at least if you weren't around these last few days to see the team pretty much fall apart at the seams.

However, the old skippers are of course right.

Hard year is a relative term when you look around the world and see how many lives, for one reason or another, have been traumatised over the past 12 months. Playing cricket, even quite a lot of it, is not exactly to travel the road of Calvary.

Strauss should be in Bangladesh leading the team, not the tyro Alastair Cook, who until quite recently was fighting for his own place in the team. The point is that they are, suddenly, a team with major problems.

Their most talented player, Kevin Pietersen is in free fall. Jonathan Trott, such a force of instant security at The Oval in the decisive Ashes Test, is a nervy, fidgeting repository of all kinds of disturbing tension. Stuart Broad isn't beginning to match in performance the arrogance of his manner or the suggestion that if he was indeed the Evelyn Waugh character young Lord Sebastian Flyte, rather than someone with the looks to audition for the part, the famous teddy bear would be seriously battered by the number of times it had been thrown out of the pram. The entire seam attack has come up seriously short here.

So has the captain's batting, such a source of strength against Ricky Ponting's Australians. Some of the more charitably inclined critics have suggested that Strauss may profitably use at least some of the free time allowed by the Bangladesh break to concentrate on his own game. But this isn't good enough.

When Atherton suffered a slide in his own performance, which was particularly apparent on a tour of New Zealand, he worked relentlessly in the nets and in Auckland would have made a century but for a freakishly brilliant catch after he reached the nineties. Managing your game is not separate from the cares of captaincy. It is part of an admittedly big challenge and it is what in this case makes the concerns of the critical triumvirate of ex-skippers all the more relevant.

There is another perspective. It is supplied by the performance of one of the greatest of all Test captains, Australia's Steve Waugh, back in the Ashes of 2001. The Aussies had already mopped up the series 3-0 when Waugh sustained a serious knee injury at Trent Bridge. He missed the next Test at Headingley, which England won, improbably. Interestingly, Waugh spent most of that match not on the dressing room balcony but working at rehabilitation on the rugby league field at the back of the stand.

"When you're captain you have a responsibility to push a little harder," he told me as sweat ran from his brow after one gruelling and painful session.

He returned to the team for the fifth Test at The Oval, scored an undefeated 157, his face sometimes clenched in pain, in the one knock Australia required to win by an innings and 25 runs.

Ironically, as it would turn out, before arriving in England Waugh took his team on a visit to the First World War battlefields of Gallipoli that claimed so many Australian lives. The gesture provoked a degree of derision in the rest of the cricket world but Waugh insisted it was good for the team's sense of commitment.

Later he said, "To me 'bonding' is an overrated term normally linked to reminiscing about escapes with a truckload of grog on board. I have had my fair share of those nights and while they can create a few laughs and a better understanding of each other the experience is shallow and soon forgotten.

"True bonding experiences stand the test of time and become part of you and most certainly visiting Gallipoli together on our way to England had a profound effect on most of the squad."

Eight years later Strauss took his players to the old killing ground of Ypres which took so many English lives, an initiative which was also said to have helped team morale, even though Freddie Flintoff happened to miss the bus.

Now, maybe, it is the right time for Strauss to reflect upon the value of something which was rather more than central to the strategy that made Waugh such a legendary Test captain. It was his habit of leading from the front.

Maradona still knows how to wow the crowds

Whatever reservations we have about the wisdom of Argentina's appointment of Diego Maradona as coach there can be no doubt about his enduring magnetism.

It was evident enough here yesterday when he arrived to inspect Argentina's World Cup headquarters in Pretoria.

There was pandemonium at the airport, as there is in most places when touched by the Hand of Diego, as he emerged from the two-month ban imposed by Fifa for his "lewd language" to journalists who questioned not only whether he was the right man to lead the nation to this summer's finals but whether he was occupying anybody's idea of a right mind.

At the airport yesterday he was still recognisably the little emperor who strode into a restaurant in Mexico City in 1986, midway through his successful attempt to become the first player to win the World Cup single-handedly, and nodded formally when everyone present rose to their feet to cheer and clap.

If he has any kind of success here this summer such a reaction to his presence is guaranteed. Without scruple or discipline, he may be a contemptible figure in so many eyes, but in a country where so many people are obliged to lead difficult, if not hopeless lives, his survival through the years of glory and shame that have followed his emergence from conditions as harsh as any to be found in the meanest township gives him a strange but compelling appeal, and gravitas, all of his own.

Even after the long flight Maradona was every inch the pouting fighting cock and the reception he received was as warm and uncritical as it was predictable.

A man occupied by demons he may be but that doesn't alter the fact that, in a country which adores football, he will never cease to be seen as one of the two or three most miraculous of its exponents.

You can put a value on Ferguson's achievements

Rumours that Barcelona's brilliant manager Pep Guardiola is being lined up as the future coach at Old Trafford clearly have nothing to do with the insistence by the Manchester United Supporters Trust that a reported call for the ousting of Sir Alex Ferguson (above) was the work of one maverick member.

Still, there is a certain symmetry in the situation, one that provides due recognition of arguably the most stupendous body of work in modern football.

In Ferguson's early years the club accepted an ownership bid of around £13m. Soon enough, the joke was given the perspective of a new evaluation touching a billion. Amid the club's current economic vulnerability, such a mind-blowing fact is perhaps too easy to forget.

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