Nervy Strauss has played into tourists' hands

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The Independent Online

Despite the great escape, Andrew Strauss is precisely where Australia want him after his first Test as an Ashes captain: under pressure as a batsman as well as a leader.

Talk of the Australians targeting an opposition skipper is just about as predictable as Glenn McGrath suggesting that any result other than 5-0 to the Baggy Greens ought to be out of the question. But that does not make it any less uncomfortable – when it works – for the target in question.

Now, just five days into the serious half of this summer, Strauss has plenty on his mind. The team he took to Cardiff failed, by a long chalk, to live up to expectations and the man who wanted to show them the way forward with the blade is suddenly short of runs again after batting like a magician at the start of his reign.

Back in February and March, in the Caribbean, Strauss scored three centuries in as many Tests in a manner which indicated that, far from being weighed down by extra responsibility, captaincy suited him just perfectly. Boundaries flashed off his bat as he played every shot in the book – an opener reborn following a couple of horribly stodgy and uncertain years scrabbling around the crease.

So far this international season, however, Strauss has been searching in vain for a decent score. While most others filled their boots during that doddle of a home series against West Indies, the Middlesex man made 16 and 26 either side of an unbeaten 14 when victory was wrapped up a Lord's. But his two failures at Cardiff are clearly more significant.

Strauss was the first of six England batsmen to reach 30 in the first innings – and the first who failed to turn a sound start into something substantial with Mitchell Johnson bouncing him out. Yesterday's dismissal, for 17, will have troubled the left-hander even more, however, because he had charged himself with the task of guiding the side out of trouble, rather than leaving others in the firing line.

One cut against spinner Nathan Hauritz brought four runs. But the next ball, apparently ripe for similar treatment, bounced a bit more than its predecessor and resulted in a thin edge through to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. From then on, Strauss could only watch anxiously from the dressing room balcony as Paul Collingwood fought like a tiger to try to keep the blood-scenting Aussies at bay.

One thing is for certain: the heat on Strauss will be no less intense at Lord's when battle resumes on Thursday.

"He is an important player for England," said Australia captain Ricky Ponting ahead of the series. "We had the better of him in Australia last time [Strauss reaching 50 only once in 10 Test innings after assuming the role of senior opener following Marcus Trescothick's stress-related breakdown]. We had him under a lot of pressure and it is important we start this series the same way."

So far, so good, you might say. "As we all know, the Australian team tries to target the opposition captain a little bit and put him under more pressure," explained Ponting. "If you can do that you can generally take another couple of guys down with him and that is what we will be trying to do."

Strauss has shown plenty of mental strength over the years, no more so than when his Test career was on the line in New Zealand six months ago. One more failure, after too many cheap dismissals, would surely have seen the selectors look elsewhere as they began to build towards the next Ashes series. The response? An innings of 177.

That Ashes series is now here, and Strauss has already made it plain how proud he feels to be captaining his country in the biggest cricket contest of them all. To Australia, though, he is just a marked man.