Strauss needs a total revival
Sunday 16 March 2008
What do England do with Andrew Strauss now? Even his most ardent fan would have to admit that his second-innings 44 at the Basin Reserve was far from convincing.
Yes, he fought hard on a testing pitch, like a man playing for his Test future. And yes, he was probably unlucky to be given out lbw to a ball that pitched just outside leg stump. But for the second consecutive Test since his recall he has failed to post a significant score or play an innings to convince people that better times lie ahead.
What the selectors have to decide before next week's Third Test in Napier is whether Strauss has the potential to regain the form that made him one of the most respected and highly thought-of cricketers in the world. It will not be an easy decision, because Strauss brings far more to the England team than merely runs and catches.
He is a strong, emotionally consistent, hard-working, selfless, team-orientated man who sets the right example to team-mates, whether younger or older.
It is these qualities, as muchas the belief that the form he showed between 2004 and 2006 would return, which encouraged Michael Vaughan and Peter Moores to select him for this tour, even though he had done nothing to show that he had overcome the problems that have been affecting his game.
Captains and coaches want Strauss-like characters, natural leaders, in their team. The great Australian side of the past decade consistently contained eight or nine such figures. The departure of Marcus Trescothick and Ashley Giles has deprived Vaughan of two such characters, and this would have influenced his handling of Strauss.
Such a player still has to perform to retain the total respect of the dressing room, though, and that is why Strauss needed a big innings here. The selectors set a much-needed precedent when they dropped Matthew Hoggard and Stephen Harmison, a move that has had a positive influence on the team's performance, and Strauss will be fully aware he could follow them in the not-too-distant future.
Such a situation can only exacerbate his anxiety because he, like any England player, has a lot to lose, both financially and emotionally. Being demoted to three, a batting position that does not appear ideally suited to him, does not help either, but he has brought it all on himself by failing to score enough runs when opening.
The best No 3s dominate opponents, often setting the tone of an innings. Strauss has strong scoring areas but does not possess the aura or threat of No 3s such as Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara, Rahul Dravid or Younis Khan.
It is not only Strauss who is unsettled by the uncertainty. Owais Shah, his Middlesex team-mate, must be wondering what he has to do to get a Test berth. Shah has spent the entire Test winter ferrying drinks out to batsmen and running shuttles during the lunch and tea intervals. In the warm-up games he has played he has done little wrong, but the selectors must doubt his ability to succeed. Why else would they have picked Ravi Bopara ahead of him in Sri Lanka and Strauss here?
Meanwhile, at 29 he is slowly getting older, and it will not be long before the selectors turn to youth for the middle order.
Michael Atherton used to say ugly 40s were the most important innings he played, because they kept him his place and gave him another chance to find form. Strauss has probably done enough to keep his place for the final Test in Napier, but Shah could replace him if the selectors look to shake the batting up for the first Test of the summer. A victory for England here would obviously lessen Shah's chances.
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