Why Strauss is England's greatest ever captain

His CV has Ashes wins home and away and world No 1 spot on it, but the way he saved flailing side makes opener finest leader his country has had, writes Stephen Brenkley

There can be no other job like it. Part of life as a professional sportsman is being told how to go about your business by people who claim to be experts but have never been within a light year of a changing room.

This is perfectly normal. The Prime Minister has recently had more advice than he could shake a stick at, if stick-shaking were permissible in the present climate, from thousands of observers who have never held elected office in their lives. It comes with the territory.

For Andrew Strauss it is much worse than that. Every day that he goes to work he is scrutinised, dissected and perused by most of his recent predecessors as the captain of the England cricket team, some of whom may know what they are talking about.

Last week at Edgbaston, where England, under Strauss's leadership, became the top-ranked Test team for the first time, six recent captains were on duty as commentators. They spanned the years from 1980 to 2008 and in chronological order were Ian Botham, David Gower, Alec Stewart, Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan.

If you wanted to count Geoff Boycott's four matches as caretaker he was there and Bob Willis was watching in a London studio. Graham Gooch was in the dressing room as England's batting coach. Mike Gatting was around as the England and Wales Cricket Board's managing director of cricket partnerships.

The most celebrated of all, Mike Brearley, normally rolls up on a Saturday on Sunday newspaper duty but was missing last week as England secured their series win with victory by an innings and 242 runs. Strauss could now be reasonably assessed as the best of the lot of them.

Given that he has won Ashes series home and away, has led the side to six successive Test series wins, including this crushing defeat of India, the previous top-ranked side, and has now won 20 of his 38 Tests as captain, the case is sound. Although his qualities of statesmanship and the obvious fact that he is simply a good bloke are universally accepted, appraisals of Strauss's tactical acumen by his peers, however, tend to be lukewarm.

Perhaps because he is not an attacking captain by nature, perhaps because he does not set tricksy fields, perhaps because he is not an instinctive changer of bowling, it is easy to overlook his virtues. Strauss is endlessly patient as a captain in that he allows strategies to unfold to their logical conclusion.

England have been meticulous in their planning lately – which is not to say they did not go into great detail before – and Strauss senses the reason for that. A plan that does not work within an over is not necessarily a bad plan.

It is noticeable too, or seems so, that he is doing more one-on-one talking to the bowler on the field. Several times at Edgbaston he ran from his first slip position to have a chat to the bowler in mid-over at the end of his run-up.

What Strauss may have managed above all is what all captains must try to do and, human nature being what it is, almost all fail to do. In his seminal work, The Art of Captaincy, Brearley wrote: "No captain can bring out the best in all players in the team. Temperamentally we all respond better to some than others.

"There are those who impose on us pressures that make us particularly touchy, or which arouse our anxieties unduly. But a good captain can respond to a player in enough cases for there to be significant overall improvement. The team as a whole and its atmosphere can be affected for good or ill."

Part of Brearley's reputation rests on his ability to get the absolute best out of Botham (not least 30 years ago this year), and Brearley himself mentions Hussain's skill in resurrecting the career of Andrew Caddick. Strauss seems to have defied Brearley's rationale. He is getting the best out of all of them.

Andy Flower, with whom Strauss has forged an important partnership as coach and captain, rarely omits to mention Strauss's qualities. Gradually and together they have got the men they wanted.

Along the way they have lost players to retirement and it is not too much of a stretch to think they were sorrier to lose some than others. Andrew Flintoff, for instance, may not have been as lamented as much as Paul Collingwood, simply because Flintoff, special player though he was, had too much celebrity baggage by the time Flower and Strauss took command.

After the great victory in Birmingham, Flower was asked about the evolution of the side and said: "I don't want to go into past sides and talk about what was wrong. What is right about this side at the moment is it's got an outstanding leader in Strauss. He really is a special man. And the players, after being asked to embrace responsibility, have delivered. Strauss asked that of them when he took over the captaincy a couple of years ago and they are repaying him."

The circumstances in which Strauss took over in early 2009 should never be forgotten. Almost his first act as captain was to visit a conflict resolution specialist. The team were in disarray following the breakdown of the relationship between the coach, Peter Moores, and the captain, Kevin Pietersen, which cost them both their jobs.

It is a measure of Strauss the man that when asked to be captain, and disappointed as he was to have been previously overlooked, he immediately suggested that a generation be skipped and that someone like Alastair Cook be appointed. The selectors were not taking no for answer.

That conflict expert was worth the visit as it happens. It was he who suggested assembling a code of values for the team, a charter if you like. From this emerged the request to take individual responsibility for the good of the team which has become the cornerstone of Strauss's captaincy.

It sounds so easy but it is so difficult in practice. Perhaps the most significant example is Ian Bell, now a batsman of the highest class whose talent was in danger of fizzling out. Perhaps Bell was at the right age when Strauss came along, but perhaps it would never have worked out for him.

A bowler such as Tim Bresnan has similarly responded because when he was a fringe player it was made abundantly clear that he had a part to play. The most significant of Strauss's successes has been Pietersen, the man he replaced.

It takes two to tango, of course, but Strauss has never put foot a wrong with regard to Pietersen. He backed him at the start, he backed him when he lost form and he backed him when he made an idiot of himself. The upshot is a mountain of runs and Pietersen being more at ease than he has for a long time.

Strauss's briefing after the match on Saturday was instructive. He made it clear there was to be no resting on laurels, that there were other goals and that only the collective was important.

He could do with a few more runs himself – though as captain he averages more than Vaughan, Hussain and Atherton. But he has taken English cricket to a great place. The time has not yet come but it will be fascinating to see what Strauss, now 34, does next. He could write a book on the art of captaincy and conflict resolution.

England's best test captains in terms of win percentage... and how Strauss compares



Qualification 10 Tests

Span

Tests

Won

Win %

W G Grace

1888-99

13

8

61.53

Douglas Jardine

1931-34

15

9

60

Mike Brearley

1977-81

31

18

58.06

Percy Chapman

1926-31

17

9

52.94

Andrew Strauss

2006-

38

20

52.63

Michael Vaughan

2003-08

51

26

50.98

Peter May

1955-61

41

20

48.78

Len Hutton

1952-55

23

11

47.82

Johnny Douglas

1911-24

18

8

44.44

Sir Pelham Warner

1903-06

10

4

40

England's test calendar

February-March 2012: Three Tests v Pakistan (in Abu Dhabi and Dubai)
March-April: Two Tests in Sri Lanka
May-June: Three Tests v West Indies
August: Three Tests v South Africa
November-December: Four Tests in India

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