Andrew Strauss has had a summer to remember; a widely praised debut as a television commentator and the publication of his autobiography. But there was one moment that made him “feel really uncomfortable”.
This was the infamous moment when the England players, celebrating the Ashes series win, urinated on The Kia Oval pitch.
“I was surprised,” he tells me. “Certainly, while I was captain, I wanted to avoid, at all costs, English cricket being in the news for the wrong reasons. Players have an obligation and a duty to be role models so you’ve got to be very careful what you do and don’t do. But also it’s distracting. It takes away from what your focus should be: cricket.”
Strauss is aware this is not the first time English cricketers have lost their focus. “They were far more raucous and misbehaved after the 2005 series. We can all dine out on some of the things that happened in the Prime Minister’s garden [when Andrew Flintoff urinated]. But everyone loved it because we hadn’t beaten Australia for 17 years. I was surprised [the Oval incident] was reported because often, in the past, people have said, ‘Look, that’s players’ off-duty time. They’re entitled to celebrate their win.’ But that doesn’t excuse what they did.”
Cricketers’ behaviour could well have been one of Strauss’s headaches had he decided to take over from Hugh Morris as managing director of English cricket. Strauss, 36, was mentioned as a successor to Morris, who leaves at the end of the year, and he admits he was tempted: “There are some aspects of the job that are really quite exciting, a chance to shape English cricket moving forward.”
But he adds: “There’s a timing issue. I’m only just out of the game and I’m still quite close to a lot of the players.”
But could he claim to be close to Kevin Pietersen? Surely not after the 2012 series against South Africa, which England lost 2-0, when Pietersen (below) sent “provocative” texts about Strauss to the South Africans.
However, Strauss’s response to that much-discussed incident is measured. In a very calm voice, he says: “I didn’t have a problem with him sending texts to the opposition. But sending uncomplimentary texts was a problem. That, I felt, was giving them an insight into our dressing room, which is not great.
“Potentially, the sacrilege would have been if he was telling them how to get me out, that’s kind of treasonous. But I’m pretty satisfied that wasn’t actually the case. Kevin can’t be absolved from blame but he apologised and said, ‘I did some things that were wrong’. ”
His eagerness to put the whole matter behind him is clear. He says: “Kevin and I weren’t the best mates in the team but 99 per cent of our time together we actually got on. We went out for dinner a lot. Kevin was not a big problem for me.”
But does not Pietersen’s highly individual style make him an oddball in a team game? “Not really,” says Strauss. “It’s part of what makes him an outstanding cricketer. He has great self-belief and confidence; that’s fine. You don’t want to stifle people. I never felt that was a good way to manage Kevin. You want him to be himself and do outrageous things and put opposition teams under pressure. Some captains might be threatened by people like Kevin. I never felt threatened and really admire the very professional and mature way he handled being relieved of the captaincy, which would have been a massive assault to his ego.”
It was Pietersen’s sacking as skipper in 2009, following his row with then coach Peter Moores, that made England turn to Strauss.
But he reveals in his book that he suggested Alastair Cook should take over.So it is no surprise that when I ask about Shane Warne’s view that England won this summer’s series despite Cook’s captaincy, he says: “One of the problems with rating captains is that all the commentators can really go on is what they see on the pitch.
“That’s such a small part of captaincy. It is getting the best out of players and you do that away from the middle: on practice days, on tour, in people’s hotel rooms. So it’s very hard for us to comment on how good a captain is.
“Alastair Cook plays a methodical type of game and gets a lot out of his players. You can’t argue with his record as England captain.”
These sentiments could be dismissed as loyalty to an old friend but they reflect what Strauss believes a former player turned commentator should do. “You can’t be completely bound by friendships just because you’ve played with him once a long time ago. But there’s a way to criticise that can be constructive and well meaning and that’s what I tend to do.
“I don’t think players have a problem with being criticised if they play a bad shot or whatever. What they have a problem with is when they feel there’s an agenda, that someone doesn’t like them and they are trying to undermine them in some way. That’s not my style. But it is my job to say what I think.”
In terms of England, Strauss’s opinion is that there is room for improvement and he hopes to see the team stepping up a level Down Under this winter.
“England didn’t play near their best in the Ashes series and some of their batsmen struggled more than you would have thought,” says Strauss, who will be part of Sky’s Ashes coverage in Australia. “There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be the No1 team in the world. You’ve got to get the best out of those players. They have got to be confident, motivated and hungry. There are a lot of players in that dressing room who will be very keen to show how good they are this winter. Jonathan Trott or Matt Prior, who didn’t have a great series, will be really motivated to have a fantastic series out in Australia.
“Australia were a more settled side at the end of the series. You can never write them off but I do expect England to win. I just think England will play better in Australia than they did this summer. Maybe they just struggled with the weight of expectation and the favourites’ tag.”
And here he feels the public could help by not criticising England for “being quite methodical and trying to strangle opposition teams”.
Expanding on that point, he says: “People are saying that’s the wrong way to play the game. But what if that is actually the best way for the English and it helps them win? Why try and emulate Australia? Why try and score at six an over if actually character trait-wise that’s not right for you? One of the big mistakes we make in English sport across the board is trying to copy other people. Work out what you do better than anyone else in the world and then commit to it. Don’t try and copy other people.”
Yet, in writing his book, Strauss has not followed his own advice, having copied the style of Andre Agassi’s Open, An Autobiography. “What I wanted to do is try to make it slightly different from your bog standard autobiography. I’d read Andre Agassi’s, where he sort of chopped and changed from present to past tense and thought, ‘Let’s see if I can do something similar’.”
The result is each chapter begins with an incident from his past, written in italics, before he draws back to narrate in detail what happened. Like Agassi, Strauss has a very cosmopolitan background and the book starts by describing how his maternal Afrikaner great grandmother, carrying Andrew’s five-year-old grandfather, escaped being imprisoned in a British concentration camp during the Boer war.
Strauss is surprised that, in spite of this, his grandfather married an Englishwoman. He smiles, saying: “I’m a bit of a mongrel really. I have got a lot of Afrikaner in me but also French, Scottish and German and all sorts. But you’re a product of your environment, where you go to school, the people you surround yourself with. You end up finding similarities and traits in common with them as much as your family and your history.”
And, watching Strauss lead England, who can have doubted that it was his Radley public school education and Middlesex cricket upbringing that mattered.