Solid Strauss conducts himself with composure
Sunday 23 August 2009
Australia came to target Andrew Strauss. They will leave knowing that the England captaincy could not be in tougher or more reliable hands. A baton held so tightly for a couple of years by Michael Vaughan and then briefly juggled by Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen is back under control.
Strauss, you may recall, was given the job seven months ago after a spot of difficulty in the camp. Some teams choose to change coaches, others opt for a new leader on the field but England, who seldom do things – good or bad – by half, decided to jettison both Peter Moores and Pietersen.
"Were you thinking, back in January, about winning the Ashes?" Strauss was asked by a journalist during the build-up to this final Test of the summer. "I had a few other things on my plate at the time," replied the Middlesex man. He could say that again.
England went to the Caribbean a couple of weeks after the night of the long knives with a "situation vacant" notice pinned to the coach's kitbag (Andy Flower was only on trial) and amid fears that the team would be split in two by the fall-out from Pietersen's demotion (or resignation, as it was officially termed).
Just as well, then, that England had a rock solid man to pick up the pieces, someone not cosily close to any of the really big names but respected by one and all. And it was a little fortunate, too, because less than a year earlier Strauss had wandered into the last chance saloon as an international batsman.
The left-hander's second innings 177 against New Zealand in Napier towards the end of March 2008 could not have been much uglier. But it bought him time and, by December of the same year, he was playing with such freedom that not one but two hundreds flowed from his bat during a Test against India in Chennai.
Then it was a question of whether captaincy would cramp Strauss's style on the tour of the Caribbean. It didn't. Far from it, in fact, with three centuries in as many Tests against a West Indies attack that felt the full force of his rediscovered love of the cover drive.
As ever, though, for an England batsman – and especially an England batting captain – the real challenge comes when the Baggy Greens are trying to dismantle your castle.
And Ricky Ponting made no bones about the fact that if Australia could leave Strauss feeling weak at the knees then a couple more batsmen might fall down.
Well, Ponting was right to some extent: Pietersen did indeed keel over, thanks to a fragile ankle, and Ravi Bopara bit the dust after too many failures. But Strauss has stood impressively tall throughout and, best of all, he responded to all the pressure associated with a "must win" Ashes decider by batting terrifically well in both innings here.
"I'm in no doubt that my first job is to score runs and set a platform for the rest of the lads," said Strauss on the eve of England's most important Test match for four years. In 2005 he supplied a century to the urn-winning cause, and though he missed out on a hundred this time, his contributions of 55 and 75 set the "over my dead body" tone just perfectly.
Jonathan Trott experienced the great delight of being able to raise his bat to a deliriously happy crowd after reaching three figures. But, long before that, Strauss and his broad bat had gone seven-eighths of the way towards dampening whatever optimism remained in the Australian corner after the dramatic events of 15- wicket Friday.
Talk about revelling in responsibility. An already deeply impressive individual, Strauss has grown in stature throughout this series and only once did he look even remotely close to being rattled.
Being required to contemplate calling up an emergency wicketkeeper, fulfil three television and radio interviews, strap on his pads and face the first ball of the Fourth Test at Headingley – all in the space of 20 minutes or so – was asking too much of anyone, even a cool, calm and collected leader such as Strauss.
It was after that defeat in Yorkshire, though, that the captain really earned his corn. While others talked of recalling a near 40-year-old in Mark Ramprakash, or trying to persuade Marcus Trescothick to come out of international retirement, Strauss spoke of showing composure and putting the pressure back on to Australia.
For three days, England have done just that. Now only the finish needs applying.
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