Strauss looks to Atherton to share burden
Captain cuts short press conference as pressure over underperformance refuses to go away
As a truncated press briefing came to a close yesterday, a captain and a former captain of England locked knowing grins. It might have been a coincidence that Andrew Strauss glanced in the direction of Mike Atherton as he swept out of the dark room at the P Sara Stadium, five minutes and 42 seconds into discussing the state of play for the second Test against Sri Lanka starting today.
But if so, it was a heck of a one. Atherton was the only person in the place who had a directly similar experience to what Strauss has been going through: a captain fighting for his life. Strauss had just been asked more or less the same question seven times and seven times had managed to avoid answering it.
Although the issue went round the houses, it came down to this: Was he thinking of quitting after such a dire run of results? There are plenty of former captains attached to the international cricket circus but only one was there yesterday to listen to Strauss being grilled. The looks they exchanged suggested they both knew exactly what was going on here. Atherton was almost, but not quite, hounded out of the job after 12 matches in 1994 over some dirt in his pocket in a Test match at Lord's against South Africa.
All hell broke loose because the implication was that Atherton might have been trying to alter the condition of the ball. He survived and went on to captain England another 42 times, still a record, but the honeymoon period was definitely over and things were probably never the same again.
This is a different scenario. Strauss is under scrutiny because his team have been losing and he has not been scoring many runs. Such a combination makes for legitimate inquiry and Strauss recognises it. It is one of the reasons the press conference was curtailed. There was one topic on everybody's minds and Strauss was not keen to engage in it.
But only in Atherton could he find someone there who knew precisely what it is like. Hence the exchange. For the record, Strauss went into the match today not thinking of resignation, but then, what else could he say? "After much thought I have decided this Test will be my last. If it was good enough for a great player like Derek Underwood to have played his last match at the P Sara Stadium, it's good enough for me." Not a chance.
Strauss gave just enough away to be certain that he understands the perilous position he finds himself in after four consecutive defeats. Part of the trouble is that there is an anointed successor, in his deputy and the one-day captain, Alastair Cook, waiting in the wings. Everybody knows that.
A win here, even such a belated one, and some runs will make the issue go away. Better by far to win now at the fag end of the winter tours than to have won a match at the very start and then lost the next four. Go out on a high and, as Strauss put it, there would be momentum going into the summer. But he could not deny the difficulties of leading a losing team.
"That is one of the real challenges of leadership or captaincy," he said. "It's easy when it's going well: everyone is buoyant and happy and patting each other on the back. When times are tough, that's when it's important you stand up and lead and show people the right direction. I like that sort of challenge. It hasn't gone our way so far this winter but I retain absolute faith, in our players and the way we like to play our cricket, that it will turn round.
"You've got to stick with it. You've got to realise you're not going to win every game you play. Sometimes you'll go through patches where things don't work out your way, both individually and collectively, and if you retain faith, it will turn round, especially if you have players of real quality, which I know we do have."
With that they were away but, on reflection, it could easily have been a pitch to the selectors.
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