Captaincy in international cricket is a challenging job, a test of mental stamina on top of the physical demands of playing the game with a high intensity. Andrew Strauss, the senior of England's three men's captains, admits that a five-day Test can leave him shattered on both counts. Time off is vital, he says, especially when one Test follows another, back to back.
Yet two days after beating West Indies at Lord's and two days before seeking to clinch the series at Trent Bridge, not only Strauss but the one-day captain Alastair Cook and Twenty20 captain Stuart Broad – not to mention the England women's captain, Charlotte Edwards – turned up in one of the toughest neighbourhoods of Nottingham, in support of the Lord's Taverners Street Elite scheme, to play playground cricket with some local schoolchildren.
"When you are playing in such a crowded schedule you need to use your time off wisely, to recharge the batteries, but it is important to do things like this," Strauss said. "If we disassociate ourselves from the grass-roots we miss a great opportunity to help the game flourish."
Strauss dismissed the idea that the pressures of leadership might be something he would give up. He surrendered the one-day captaincy last year, but has no intention of passing on the Test job.
"I love captaincy, I love the challenge, it is what makes me get out of bed in the morning," he said. "As a batsman, it can be a double-edged sword. If you are going through a bit of a bad patch and you need to spend time on your own game you can find your opportunities are a bit more limited, but on the other hand it can help you in that you have less time to think about it. In my mind thinking is overrated when it comes to batting because you want to be on autopilot as much as possible.
"It has been a fantastic learning curve for me, the leadership stuff, learning how to manage people, learning how to try to bring everyone together, to get the best out of them. These are things I find exciting at this stage of my career.
"Coaxing the best out of individuals is the big challenge, bigger than the tactical side of the job. You listen to commentators and they will talk about bowling changes or fielding positions but I don't think that's what wins you Test matches. I believe that what creates performances on the pitch is having the right off-field environment. It's about what sort of team ethos you have, what sort of work ethic. It is those things that enable you to get people to play close to their potential, for the side to be greater than the sum of its parts. We work very hard on that.
"When you first start [as a captain], you are a bit more conscious about what you are doing and you try to prove yourself to everyone else. After a time you get a bit more comfortable in the job. I don't find it difficult now but I'm still loving the challenge."
Cook, who replaced Strauss as one-day captain, with Broad put in charge of the Twenty20 side, thrives on the extra responsibility.
"I've learned a lot and it has helped me add something extra as a player," he said. "I think I've improved as a leader. One way in which having three captains works is that it allows myself and Broady to have shorter exposure. Being captain for two, maybe two and a half weeks for a one-day series is not too draining because it can be quite a hard job. It is great to be able to tap into Andrew's years of experience. Just because you are made captain does not mean you suddenly have the knowledge you need. He is always on the end of a phone line if you need a chat."
Their public appearance together may have been rare but privately they often confer.
Edwards also applauded Strauss's accessibility. "We get to see the guys quite a bit with a lot of our Twenty20 games being double-headers, and it is always nice to have the opportunity to pick Andrew's brain about certain things," she said. "It is great they are giving their time and hopefully can inspire some of these kids to play cricket."
The Street Elite programme aims to train and employ young people from disadvantaged areas to organise cricket and other games in their communities. The Bridlington Street Multi-Use Games Area, where yesterday's event took place, is in Radford, an district of high unemployment and high levels of street crime. Less than a decade ago, two gangland executions took place only a couple of blocks away.
Two of the scheme's success stories, Kemar Campbell and Akiem McCarthy, both 21 and from Peckham in south London, were there to receive their coaching certificates. Strauss, like Cook and Broad from a private-school background, acknowledged the huge contrast between his start in life and theirs.
"I was very fortunate," he said. "I went to a private school and lived quite a closeted life until I started playing professional cricket. It is very difficult to get kids from this kind of background involved. In urban centres in particular it is a challenge – the facilities are not there, people have less opportunity at school, it is just much harder.
"People do come through from poor beginnings. In my time at Middlesex, there have been kids coming through from very under-privileged backgrounds, although not as many as we would like. We need to break down the barriers, because it can be self-perpetuating if people think cricket only attracts middle-class people. We want the game to grow in urban areas as well as leafy suburbs."Reuse content