Strauss' skills as captain under further scrutiny

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The Independent Online

Andrew Strauss's view of captaining England will have undoubtedly changed over the past five weeks. Captaining your country is viewed as the pinnacle of a sportsman's career but Strauss, England's stand-in for a stand-in captain, has had a pretty rough time of it since Andrew Flintoff injured his ankle during the 134-run defeat to Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge.

England have won only one of the eight games he has marshalled, against Ireland in Belfast, and his captaincy skills have continually been scrutinised and questioned. His wife, Ruth, has even been labelled a CWAG - Cricket Wives And Girlfriends - for daring to turn up to watch his first game in charge.

Strauss is resilient enough to take the criticism and he is wise enough to know that this sort of attention comes with the job, but as he left Lord's on Monday evening, after guiding a England to a draw in the first Test against Pakistan, he must have wondered what more he has to do.

Well before the end of the Test it is widely felt that Strauss should have been more adventurous with his declaration. Calling an end to England's second innings on Sunday evening and setting Pakistan 320 in 95 overs may have been a trifle cavalier but batting on for 35 minutes on the fifth morning was extremely cautious.

Strauss has defended the decision but was it really he who made it? Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, possesses the most powerful voice in English cricket and, more often than not, gets his way on selection - as the continued presence of Geraint Jones highlights. It is hard to believe that he did not play a significant role in the timing of England's declaration.

Fletcher is the type who enjoys having the television remote in his hand. He does not go out looking for attention or plaudits, but he wants to be in control. Strauss, captaining England for the first time, will have worked closely with Fletcher at Lord's, but the coach would have been reluctant to let him, in his only Test in charge, do anything that would jeopardise the team's chance in the series.

There have been examples of when wonderful England bowling and poor opposition batting - at Johannesburg in 2004-05 and Bombay in 2005-06 - has taken attention away from a belated declaration, but there are also occasions when caution has possibly cost victory. One instance came at Old Trafford last summer when Australia were set 443 for victory and finished nine wickets down, and another at Durban in 2004-05 when South Africa were eight down when bad light ended the match.

At the start of every Test both teams want to be in control. They want to play a match that runs parallel to their game plan and this, inevitably, results in them being in a position from which they can declare. With the ability to declare comes power and with this brings responsibility.

Getting sense out of the dressing-room when the declaration is imminent is a nightmare for a captain. Everybody has differing views on how big a target the team should be set. The bowlers always want more runs and less overs, while the batsmen often have a different attitude because it is no longer their responsibility to win the game.

The captain, among all this conflicting advice, has to make a decision. He has to weigh up the merits of the pitch, the fitness of his bowlers, the ability of the opposition batsmen, the effect the result may have on the series and try to gauge whether bad weather will interfere. If he gets it right he has done what was expected of him, if he gets it wrong he is a wally. The safest option, obviously, is to get bowled out.

* Mushtaq Ahmed could be in line for a Test recall. The leg-spinner, 36, who has been in outstanding form for Sussex has been confirmed as the 17th member of the touring party. But there are doubts whether he will be picked, as he is suffering from sciatic pain.

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