Sky's the limit for Strauss, who made England real contenders

Ashes holders are not a great team (yet) but remember just how far they have come since their humbling at Shane Warne's hands at the MCG in 2006
  • @stephenbrenkley

Four years ago, England arrived at the MCG in an unholy mess. It was not about to improve any time soon. The first day belonged, like no other, to Shane Warne. He arrived at his home-town ground needing one wicket to become the first man in the history of Test cricket to take 700 wickets.

It arrived at 3.18pm, the 20th ball of Warne's spell, which turned slightly through Andrew Strauss's slightly crooked bat and bowled him. Strauss walked off, an ignored part of the history taking place all round him.

"I had just scored my first and only 50 of the series so I was hoping to go on to something a bit more significant than that and I went and played across a half-volley," said Strauss. "I don't think it's the best ball he's ever bowled but I was pleased to play my small part in his great act."

So much has happened since. Warne was to retire after one more Test match as the king of spin and would become in no particular order television commentator, poker player, chatshow host, paramour (briefly) of an English siren, inveterate tweeter. Strauss is the captain of England.

As he wandered off the MCG that cold day in 2006, with Warne and the Australian team in general doing a jig, Strauss's thoughts would not have strayed to four years' hence. England were already 3-0 down in the Test series, before another two days were up it would be 4-0 and a week after that it was 5-0. It was probably as bad as it can get in cricket, and the England and Wales Cricket Board instituted an inquiry.

But here Strauss is now, the undisputed leader of a team which holds the Ashes, has given itself a fighting chance of retaining them in this country for the first time in a generation and has the respect of the cricket world. For years England were reminiscent of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, all but saying: "You don't understand, I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

They are bums no longer, they have class, they are contenders. Strauss has done that by giving his men a mandate to take responsibility, not to rely on the man next in or next on. There are still bad days when England overlook their duty, as they so unswervingly demonstrated in Perth last week when they lost five wickets for 20 runs. That was not taking responsibility, that was ignoring it because they failed to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

The culture of the team that Strauss has forged, however, offers reason to believe that they are capable of overcoming that. It is always fascinating to watch teams evolve and regress and it can be seen now, four years on, that England did not plan properly.

It was thought after that 5-0 defeat in Australia, a hammering the Australians justifiably believe has been airbrushed from English history, that the return of Michael Vaughan would make everything right again. But Vaughan had been out of the team too long, in his absence other players had come in, he was not quite the player he was. It was understandable why they wanted to wait for a captain who had brought the Ashes home after 16 years, but it was wrong.

Not until January 2009 was Strauss elevated to the captaincy and then only after Vaughan had resigned in a veil of tears and Kevin Pietersen had quit in a morass of ego. It is a cause for wry amusement sometimes when the selectors talk of their grand plan for English cricket. They got to Strauss (and Andy Flower, the coach) only by a route which took them round some very big houses. They got lucky.

Before the victory in Adelaide, which was as perfect an exhibition of Test cricket as had been that against South Africa in Durban last December, a couple of members of the present England squad, separately, unprompted and almost in an aside, said that Strauss was the best captain they had ever played under. In the realms of captaincy, it should be noted, one man's meat is another man's poison (do not think Vaughan or Nasser Hussain, marvellous captains both for different reasons, had the unalloyed admiration of all their charges) but it is fair to assume that Strauss has the support, respect and loyalty of the vast majority of his team. He is a patently decent bloke.

There are those who say Strauss is not a master tactician. They may be right but he has a plan and sees it through. Too many captains in Test cricket change things too soon. A plan has to be given the chance to unfold.

Two victories during Strauss's tenure have been particularly noteworthy. The Ashes victory of 2009 was not as celebrated as that four years earlier for plain reasons. The moment was not as historic. But it was much more unexpected.

England of 2005 had a team on the upward swing with a captain, in Vaughan, in his pomp and a coach, in Duncan Fletcher, who was single-minded enough to know what he was doing and had a couple of great, if transiently great, players at his disposal. But in 2009, England had come through tumultuous times.

True, they seemed to have a settled batting order, but the bowlers were subject to change and some of them were still off the pace in international cricket. The dressing room and the game in general had been shocked by what had happened to Pietersen and the coach at the time, Peter Moores.

Yet Strauss and Flower changed this round. Not the least of their achievements has been reassimilating Pietersen into the team. He can sometimes be infuriating, if engaging, but they know how to handle him. They seem to know who should have rope and when, which is an important part of the craft of leading all teams, but particularly cricket teams away from home for months on end.

It should be stipulated here and now that Strauss and Flower have not made England a great team. They are fourth in the world Test rankings for a reason. They have no truly great cricketers. Graeme Swann is No 2 in the world rankings and is an outstanding, smart and cunning spin bowler but he is probably not an authentically great cricketer and he probably knows it. The man occupying the No 1 position, Dale Steyn, probably is, incidentally.

Jimmy Anderson has great days, Stuart Broad, missing and missed for the rest of this Ashes series, is maturing rapidly.

The batting, including that of Strauss himself, remains too fitful. The profound evidence that Ian Bell is becoming the batsman we all thought he was capable of being, is still not matched by the clincher of an Ashes hundred. Pietersen followed the double hundred which seemed to confirm his return to the days of yore with a duck and three. Paul Collingwood, great fielder and a superlative team man, is fighting the dying of the batting light and while he may win this battle the certainty is that there will be others and soon. And on and on.

But think back four years. Think back to Strauss being castled by Warne and England being trumped yet again. They have come a long way.