Runless Strauss is fireproof but he still needs to start blazing

Is the captaincy affecting the batting of England's Ashes leader? He is upbeat but remains under pressure
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The Independent Online

After 33 Tests as England's captain, Andrew Strauss might have known better. Had he dangled a carrot the size of the London Gherkin he could hardly have enticed providence more persuasively.

There was always one batsman under the spotlight, said Strauss before the Test match at Lord's, and while he saw it as unhealthy he knew it was the simple truth. Strauss was speaking then of Kevin Pietersen but now the captain himself is being scrutinised.

Pietersen's confident 75 in the second Test has allowed him to slip into the wings for the time being and make plenty of room for Strauss in the glare. For the second match in a row, Strauss failed at Lord's.

His Test scores this summer are 20, 4 and 0, he has converted only one of his last 11 fifties into a hundred, while his average since the beginning of the 2009 summer is down to 37. The rays will be searing into him when he makes his way out to bat here against Sri Lanka, in the inaugural Test at the Rose Bowl, which begins today.

"I'm not sure it is right that someone is always under the spotlight, but that is the fact of it," said Strauss yesterday. "I was frustrated with my returns at Lord's and it is the nature of the beast as an opening batsman. Sometimes you get a couple of good balls early.

"But I'm very comfortable with my own game and I'm very comfortable with us as a batting unit with six out of seven being in great fettle in the first two Tests. Now it is my turn to come to the party, there is no doubt about that."

It is difficult for England to do anything here but win the series because Sri Lanka have to win the match to level it. Nothing their bowlers have done so far suggests they are capable of taking 20 wickets. The Rose Bowl pitch is an unknown quantity but expect blandness. Strauss may have to expect Australian form from his four-man attack, especially the returning Jimmy Anderson. But his batting will never be far from his mind.

It might be that the captaincy has got to Strauss as it seems to get to them all in the end. Of recent England captains only Graham Gooch, who scored 11 hundreds in 34 matches, seemed positively to be galvanized by it. Figures only tell part of the story, though, and Mike Brearley retains an exalted status despite a Test batting average of 22.49 in charge of the side.

Strauss's exemplary record as a leader who has twice won the Ashes makes him fireproof. But uncertainty is bound to stalk him at the crease in the next few days. The good balls from Sri Lanka's seamers at Lord's could be counted on ten fingers but Strauss received two of them.

Nor can it be pure coincidence that he is too readily dismissed by left-arm pace bowlers. To a list containing such notable practitioners as Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Amir can now be added Chanaka Welegedara. And Zaheer lies in wait later in the summer.

"I've scored a lot of fifties and not turned them into hundreds and that is something I'm determined to change," said Strauss. "You've got to ride the blows to a certain extent because you're not going to score runs every time you bat, but scoring runs for your team is the job. I've done a lot of batting and I've been working on a couple of little things. The most important thing is the right mindset.

"Over the last couple of years my form in both forms of the game has been pretty good as captain. I'm not going to fall into the trap of over-analysing it. I just need to watch the ball and give myself the best chance of scoring runs. Psychologically I'm feeling in a very good place so I mustn't get too caught up in it." But only runs can ensure the net does not envelop him.

England have a slight selection conundrum, which is as grave as their team deliberations seem to get these days. They must decide which of the four seam bowlers to omit. It will probably be Steve Finn, though Stuart Broad needs wickets as much as Strauss needs runs.

The golden boy of his cricketing generation he may be, and the new captain of the England Twenty20 side to boot, but in his last eight Test matches Broad has taken 22 wickets at 35 each. That includes the hospitable pitches on which England played Pakistan last summer.

Strauss said: "We always want our bowlers to be taking wickets so from that point of view it is a concern, but he's done a lot of good things. He's gone past the bat a lot and the fact is we've got a good squad of bowlers and they're all being pushed hard to make sure they keep performing. The challenge for Stuart is to keep improving.

"But you also have to realise with bowlers that sometimes one guy will get the wickets but the other bowls better, so you have to look beyond how many wickets they've got – you have to look at how many balls they get in the right area."

Ultimately, though, Strauss and England have to look at how many wickets, and Broad is taking them at a rate of every 68 balls and Finn every 41 balls.

Whoever is chosen, and given five days, England should win. The ambition to be world Test No 1 demands it.

First Tests at England's other nine grounds

The Oval

6 Sep 1880: England 420 and 57 for 5; Australia 149 and 327. England won by five wickets

England's first Test century was scored in his debut Test by WG Grace, who hit 152. The sides bowled 495 overs in three days.

Old Trafford

10 Jul 1884: England 95 and 180 for 9; Australia 182. Draw

England were destroyed by Australia's pace pair of Harry Boyle (6 for 42) and Frederick Spofforth (4 for 42), 'The Demon' himself. But a washed-out first day meant that a draw was inevitable.

Lord's

21 Jul 1884: Australia 229 and 145; England 379. England won by an innings and five runs

Yorkshire's Ted Peate (6 for 85) and George Ulyett (7 for 36) shared the honours.

Trent Bridge

1 Jun 1899: Australia 252 and 230 for 8 dec; England 193 and 155 for 7. Draw

The first declaration in Tests and the international debut of 21-year-old Wilfred Rhodes, who took 4 for 58 and 3 for 60.

Headingley

29 Jun 1899: Australia 172 and 224; England 220 and 19 for 0. Draw

Dick Lilley rescued England with 55 as two Australian greats, Monty Noble and Sid Gregory, recorded pairs.

Edgbaston

25 May, 1902: England 376 for 9; Australia 36 and 46 for 2. Draw

Rain saved Australia as they fell to what remains their lowest total against England, decimated by Wilfred Rhodes (7 for 17) and George Hirst (3 for 15).

Bramall Lane

3 Jul, 1902: Australia 194 and 289; England 145 and 195. Australia won by 143 runs

Sheffield's only Test. Sydney Barnes (6 for 49) and Monty Noble (5 for 51 and 6 for 52) caused panic.

Riverside

5 Jul, 2003: England 416; Zimbabwe 94 and 253. England won by an innings and 69 runs

First new Test venue for 101 years. On his Test debut, Richard Johnson (6 for 33) skittled Zimbabwe. Another unlikely lad, Anthony McGrath, made 81.

Sophia Gardens

8 Jul, 2009: England 453 and 252 for 9; Australia 674 for 6 dec. Draw

Four Aussies hit tons but the innings which counted were played by Paul Collingwood, batting six hours for 74, and the last pair, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, holding out for 36 minutes.

Stephen Brenkley

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