Andrew Strauss politely turned down his invitation to last night's cocktail party celebrating Christopher Martin-Jenkins' 60th birthday. It was not because the England opener could not be bothered, or that he did not want to be seen drinking a glass of wine on the eve of an important Test match. Strauss was at Radley College with Robin, the son of the well-known cricket writer and broadcaster, and would like to have attended.
His reason for declining the invitation was simple. On the night before each Test, Strauss has gone through the same routine and he did not want to do something that would break the routine he has established in his brief international career.
And why has he been so insistent about that routine? Again the reason is simple. Strauss made his Test debut just seven months ago at the relatively late age of 27, having established a reputation as an accomplished, if hardly world-beating, opening batsman for Middlesex on the county circuit. Since that game, against New Zealand, Strauss has played in 11 Test matches and scored five centuries, a phenomenal return by any standards, and one that has drawn comparisons - statistical and otherwise - with some of the game's greatest names.
The question the whole sport wants to know is a simple one: how has he made the adjustment so seamlessly? Strauss, while modest about his achievements, insists there have been two vital factors. Preparation and routine.
He says that he does not know whether the procedure he goes through is superstitious. All he knows is that it is working, and he does not want to tempt fate or do anything which may bring it to an end.
His routine starts at the end of the team meeting which takes place on the eve of every match. "On the night before every Test I will sit down for an hour or so and write some things down in my diary," he said. "It is very important in that it helps me clear my mind and focus on what's ahead. I will write down how I am feeling and what I have to try and do in order to score runs the following day.
"I started making entries after my winter at the National Academy and to begin with I concentrated on batting. But when I started playing for England I decided to expand on what I put in it because there is a lot more going on.
"On tour there are different thoughts going through your head. You can get a bit bored in your hotel room, of spending so much time with the same people and you do have the odd low day. But by putting it down on paper I am almost putting it out of my mind. It is my way of dealing with it.
"I will compare and contrast my feelings with previous entries so that I can get my mind into a similar state. When you are in form this is not too difficult to do because you don't have any technical concerns and your mind is pretty clear anyway. The important thing for me is that I continue to do this when I am out of form because that is when things will be pinging around my head and life will get a bit tricky."
Most cricketers struggle to sleep on the night before a Test match. By then your preparations are complete and you should have done all you possibly can to perform to the best of your ability. But, even so, it is impossible to gauge what will happen over the next five days. Will I perform heroically, or will I make a fool of myself in front of millions of people?
The departure time of the team bus will depend on how long the journey is to the ground but the aim is to be in the dressing-room 90 minutes before the scheduled start of play. This gives the players enough time for a stretch, fielding practice and a chance to get your individual game in working order.
"I always eat cereal and toast for breakfast and listen to Joss Stone on my iPod on the way to the ground. On the team bus there is always a lot of nervous chattering, or people taking the piss out of each other, but on the first morning of the Test I prefer to have some time to myself. Listening to music helps me focus my mind and helps me get into my own little cocoon.
"All my preparation batting-wise would have been done on the practice days so after the warm-up and fielding practice all I will be looking for is a few throw-downs, or possibly a net if I want to feel bat on ball. But I am not thinking about my batting a great deal at all, I am really only going through the motions."
For players the toss is always a big moment in the game. I never used to watch it. Most bowlers want their team to bat first because it delays the toil for a little while. But an opening batsman knows he is going to be out in the middle at the start of play no matter how the coin comes down.
"I always watch the toss," Strauss said. "I generally assume we are going to lose it [Vaughan has lost 16 out of 23 since he became captain] so I am trying to work out what the opposition will do.
"If we are batting I will wait until 20 minutes before the start before I begin preparing myself. I check my kit, look for a bit of peace and quiet, and try to keep as relaxed as possible. Then five minutes later I will put my pads on and do some shadow batting to get my feet moving.
"And finally I will go and sit on my own outside so that I can get my eyes adjusted to the light and relax. If you are tense and nervous and the adrenalin is flowing too much, I personally think I am more likely to do something I may regret at the start of my innings, like going for a big drive or playing at a ball I should have left alone. I am trying to get my mindset when I face the first ball to be as close as possible to how it is when I have scored 20 or 30."
Marcus Trescothick has opened the batting with Strauss in every innings he has played, and the pair average 58.24 for the first wicket. But there is no special chemistry between them and conversation is kept to a minimum as they walk out to bat. Both openers like to face the first ball of the game, but Trescothick pulled rank when they first batted together and Strauss has become used to watching from the bowler's end.
"Again we have a routine," he said, before laughing at the stupidity of it all. "Tres has a very set routine and we always say the same thing to each other: 'Let's get stuck in' and 'Good luck, mate' before waddling off to our different ends.
"You never quite know what you are going to get first up but I look to leave the ball as much as I can at the start of my innings. In the first 10 overs you try and assess the wicket and play low-risk shots. After that I slowly try and impose myself on the game. Obviously there will be days when you get a jaffa [an unplayable delivery] first ball and when this happens you just have to take on the chin and walk off. But fortunately this has not happened to me on too many occasions yet."
Indeed it has not. Strauss' rigid routine - Ruth, his wife, has stayed in Johannesburg for the fifth Test so that it is not broken - along with his organised mind, has undoubtedly helped him adjust to Test cricket but even he struggles to explain how he has been able to score 1,202 runs at an average of 60.1 in his first 22 innings.
"Fate has smiled kindly on me," he said. "I have been quite lucky in the way things have worked out and I got my chance much earlier than I anticipated. I was in form and batted on a good pitch on my debut. But scoring that 100 took a massive monkey off my back because I proved to myself and my team-mates that I could perform at this level."
Strauss has scored three centuries in this Test series, and should he score another in Centurion during the next five days he will become only the fourth Englishman - after Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond and Denis Compton - to score four hundreds in a series.
"People talk about living the dream and that is what I am doing," he admitted. "My motivation for playing came from watching Test matches on television, the likes of Gower and Gooch scoring hundreds, and you wondered what a feeling that must be. But when you do it yourself it does seem a bit surreal. You watch the highlights on TV and it is hard to believe it is you out there playing like that.
"I'm slightly uncomfortable with some of the hype. It doesn't seem right to me. If I continue to do what I have so far done for another five years then maybe people can start talking about the hype, but for me it is pretty unrealistic."
If Strauss were to continue batting as he has for the next five years he would have the right to regard himself as one of the finest players England have produced.Reuse content