Strauss scores heavily despite captain's burden
Whenever an England captain is appointed, immediate concerns are expressed about what it might do to his batting. Unless it happens to be Bob Willis, who was 15 captains ago and did not count. The cares of leader-ship can weigh men down while they ignore their own game to think of strategy, selection and the needs of others. Andrew Strauss is giving serious trouble to this theory.
His studious hundred in the Fifth Test was his fifth as captain of England, his third of this series to add to the two he made against Pakistan when he was caretaker in 2006. This is compelling evidence to suggest that far from being diminished by the job, Strauss is stimulated by it because he is so stirred by the need to set an example.
There is much fun to be had with cod psychology here. Mike Brearley, usually put forward as the acme of modern English captaincy, averaged slightly less with the bat as a captain than he did simply as a player. But he was pretty hopeless in both cases – 22.49 and 22.89 – so it is difficult to say if he was affected one way or the other. Brearley, for all his undoubted smartness, would not last 31 matches as captain in this era.
Michael Vaughan had undoubted tactical and leadership skills. But although he made nine of his 18 hundreds so far in 51 matches as captain, his average was a mere 36 compared with 41 overall. Whereas Michael Atherton, who has led England most often, scored eight hundreds with an average of 40.59 in 54 matches as captain and in his other 61 matches scored another eight hundreds at 35.25.
The captaincy usually comes to a player at the zenith of his career. Australia tend to take this to the extremes by giving the job to their best batsman, though their most astute captain of recent times, Mark Taylor, averaged six runs less as captain than when in the ranks.
There is a general agreement that Strauss is indeed invigorated by being captain. The fact that he has done well in two different – albeit brief – spells three years apart indicates some force at work.
True, there may be a long way to go in his tenure (if not, something has gone badly wrong) but for the moment he stands alone among those to have been captain in 10 or more matches. His average going into the second innings of the Fifth Test is 63. Graham Gooch, eventually the archetypal example of a captain who led by example, scored 11 centuries at an average of 58.
Arguably the most influential England captain in terms of performance was Stanley Jackson, who led the team for only five matches in 1905. But what a quintet. He scored 492 runs, including two hundreds, at 70 and took 13 wickets at 15, making decisive contributions in England's two victories. Jackson met both the essential if mythical criteria of what constitutes an outstanding England captain, being a Yorkshireman and a public schoolboy.
Strauss's position is secure, not least because England have had quite enough changes of captaincy lately. But it would do him no harm to level the series here, having beaten Pakistan in 2006.
It has been surprising how quickly this has become his team after the kerfuffle which led to Kevin Pietersen being deposed a mere nine weeks ago. He has made tough decisions – dropping senior players in Stephen Harmison, Monty Panesar and Ian Bell – and clearly has the team's respect. His tactical nous has been stretched on anodyne pitches, but it would have been intriguing to see, say, Brearley operate on them.
Strauss is smart enough to know that he cannot continue in his present rich vein, but the captaincy could complete him as a cricketer. Willis, incidentally, averaged 11 with the bat as non-captain, 12 as captain.
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