Self-belief fuels ascent of Strauss the marvel

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The Independent Online

Nasser Hussain, no less, now speaks of Andrew Strauss as a potential England captain and it is not hard to imagine the clucking of agreement in the Long Room.

Nasser Hussain, no less, now speaks of Andrew Strauss as a potential England captain and it is not hard to imagine the clucking of agreement in the Long Room.

The boy, after all, is phenomenal. But then it is also true that as the level of praise threatens to leap off the chart - quite inevitably and deservedly as he tucks in behind the legendary Don Bradman and George Headley in the all-time league table of colossal first impacts on Test cricket - the English game is still required to answer the question that just won't go away.

How is it that Strauss, who is of course not a boy but a 27-year-old in the prime of his sportsman's life, had to wait so long to show what he could do at the highest level?

Did he simply burst brilliantly from his chrysalis that day at Lord's when England turned to him - without warning or planning - after Michael Vaughan suffered the misadventure of injury in the nets, or was his emergence part of the English cricket masterplan that the Australian captain Steve Waugh said a few years ago was an absolute prerequisite of any reappearance at the top of the world game?

We know the answer well enough. We know how much fledgling talent has perished in England over the last few decades and if we are ever forgetful of this we need only think of the haunted face of another captain of Middlesex, Mark Ramprakash.

Ramprakash announced a sweeter talent than Strauss's - and at an earlier age, but then we watched him suffer on and off the big stage for so long. You may say this was nobody's fault but his own. However, it is also a fact that he never enjoyed the certainties that Strauss has now won for himself.

One part of the problem, no doubt, was his brooding, self-doubting nature, another, it has to be suspected, was the old club environment and game-by-game judgement in which he found himself. If circumstances had allowed Ramprakash to bed himself into Test cricket, if his talent had flowered as so many shrewd judges believed it might with sufficient faith and patience, would he too have made a mark on history in the way of his successor?

None of this touches the brilliance of Strauss's achievements in scarcely more than half a year. He has taken his chances so well, and is ridding himself of flaws so relentlessly, like a sunny version of the young Geoff Boycott or Nick Faldo, that no one can argue with the assessment of Hussain.

Yet there is that other worry. How can Strauss have come so far so quickly without inviting questions about the waste that has gone on before and might just happen again in talent less securely housed than his own.

The wonder of Strauss is his marvellous temperament. When he was selected by England he said he was honoured and pleased but that he hadn't become a desperate shell of yearning. If the call hadn't come, he said briskly, he would probably quite soon have devoted himself more to the City of London and, doubtless, made himself quite a lot of money. He is, wondrously in this sporting age, a hubris-free zone. When he is out his instinct, however many runs are on the board, is to curse rather than congratulate himself and Hussain, tellingly, reveals what when at the start of the South African tour he whispered that there were maybe a few areas of weakness that might just be worked on, Strauss replied, in effect, "it's sorted."

It may just be significant that Strauss's character was moulded in Johannesburg and Sydney before the family move to London. Perhaps the competitive instinct benefited from some early honing. It is a detail, of course; Graeme Hick, whose youthful talent blazed across Zimbabwe, served possibly the longest ever English apprenticeship, but at Test level his flaws were played upon to devastating effect.

For the moment, Strauss looks as bombproof as any cricketer in the world, but then he knows as well as anybody that there are many trials ahead, not least when the Australians arrive here in the summer. That he has shown a superb aptitude for such an investigation of ability and character is being correctly acknowledged. However, not the least of his attributes appears to be a willingness to live no further into the future than from one day's work to another.

It was a concept that was always elusive for the gifted but flawed Ramprakash. After scoring a brilliant and potentially breakthrough century in the West Indies, he revealed how he had gone into the shower after his innings and felt a surge of relief. "As the water poured over me," he said, "I felt that this century was something I would always have - something that could never be taken away. I felt that all my doubts were being washed away."

Strauss is not likely to make a similar miscalculation and this is perhaps his greatest glory. Significantly, it is one over which he is entitled to congratulate himself - quite exclusively.

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