Evening Standard

In charge: Andrew Strauss says there is no need to bark out the orders these days. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Animals have occupied more time than cricket for Andrew Strauss recently as he enjoys a well-earned – and rare – break from the sport with his family at his farm near Marlow.

England’s Test captain has acquired a dog to complement the sheep given to him by Alastair Cook’s girlfriend. But, in the six weeks since leading England to No1 in the Test rankings, he has thought long and hard about what the team must do to remain the top dogs of cricket. In the process, the 34-year-old has also banished thoughts of retirement which he had entertained at the beginning of the season.

The success of the summer still seems astonishing: India arrived as World Cup holders and the No 1 Test team but left after failing to win a single international. Despite this, Strauss emphasises that England are far from the finished product and he dismisses the idea his side are the new Australia.

“It would be wrong to talk of us in the same sentence as the Steve Waugh or the early Ricky Ponting sides because we haven’t done it for long enough,” he says. “We’ve played good cricket for two years, they played good cricket for eight or 10 years in all forms of the game.

“We certainly, don’t try and emulate Australia. Australia’s always been about being very positive and having slips and gullies everywhere. Our method is much more one of containment, building pressure to such an extent that finally it pays dividends.

“Cook and I are not like Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer at the top of the order. They started by trying to dominate everyone. We’re more than happy to suck up some pressure if we need to. But we’ve got that attacking second-half batting line-up which can push us ahead.”

However, Strauss points to one trait which England have developed and which bears comparisons with the great Australian sides – the ability to win a match in almost any circumstances. Strauss points to the First Test at Lord’s where his side negotiated testing early conditions to post a score of 474 for eight declared and compares that performance to those during the early part of his two-year captaincy.

“Like Australia at their pomp, we’ve found a way to come back into games and win when we weren’t in a great position in the first place,” he says.

“In the conditions we had on that first morning at Lord’s, the side I first took over as captain would have often been bowled out very cheaply. I look back to the Headingley Test against Australia in 2009, when we were bowled out very cheaply in the first innings [102] and the Wanderers Test match in South Africa in 2010, when we were bowled out very cheaply in the first innings [180]. But, at Lord’s, we showed we’ve learned from that. After being put into bat in horrendous conditions – very dank, overcast skies, a green wicket – to get 470 odd was tremendous.

“Players are a bit more confident of their place in the side and confident of our abilities to win Test matches. In the past we were a bit gung-ho and said: ‘Okay, well, it’s tricky, so I’m just going to play my shots and see if it’s my day.’ Now, we say, ‘Let’s relish these tough conditions, let’s get through it and we’ll come out the other side.’ We know that, if it’s tough for us, it’s likely to be tough for them as well. There’s a bit more steel in the team now.”

England’s new-found strength – ­coupled with the turmoil within the injury-hit India camp – meant the tourists suffered a 4-0 whitewash, losing two of the Tests by an innings.

“While I was confident of beating India, we were all a little bit surprised by how comfortably we won,” says Strauss. “The No1 status was a long-term goal and maybe we’ve got there a bit quicker than we thought.”

This may be the clue as to why Strauss has banished his early summer thoughts of retirement.

“At the start of the season, when I stopped playing the one-day game, I was trying to think a little bit too much of how far do I want to go? Since then, I’ve just let it go. As long as I’m enjoying the game, playing well, England are doing well and it doesn’t feel like the right time has come yet, I’ll keep playing. I don’t have any set goals that I have to be there for the home Ashes series [in 2013], or that I want to go past the Ashes in Australia [in 2013-14]. If I get to the stage where it just doesn’t feel right any more, then I’ll retire.”

Cook has spoken of his ambition to lead the Test side but Strauss feels no pressure from the Essex man, who is eight years his junior.

“I get on very well with Alastair and Stuart Broad [the T20 captain],” he says. “The trouble comes if one of the other captains is overly ambitious to do all three jobs. Alastair is not champing at the bit to take over. We’ve both got a lot of respect for each other and I have no plans to give up.”

Strauss is determined to build on England’s progress and the way they have developed is a pointer to some of our less successful national teams.

“One of the things that gives me most pride is when I’ve heard the odd comment from people in other sports going, well, look, cricket have done it, so we can do it,” he says. “That makes me feel like we’ve achieved something quite special. I’d argue that we haven’t done it yet. I’m conscious of not saying everything’s fine and dandy and isn’t our system great. There are still big improvements that can be made.”

Crucial to this is the continuance of his partnership with Andy Flower. Both were thrust into their roles in 2009 after Peter Moores was sacked as coach and Kevin Pietersen axed as captain.

Given the very public falling out between Moores and Pietersen, Strauss was aware of the need to bring everyone together.

“I was very conscious there was very much a ‘them and us’ feeling about the management and the players. The management were barking orders at the players. The players were getting on with it but slightly resenting the management. What’s happened is that we’ve all got closer, we all appreciate each other’s contribution.

“I don’t think I could have achieved half of what I’ve done without Andy. We complement each other pretty well. We’ve both got very similar ideas on what works and what we want to do with the side but we’re different characters.

“Andy’s a bit more stony-faced and he pushes the players very hard. He never switches off, he’s always looking for ways to improve. Maybe, I’m a bit more empathetic with the players.”

This flows from Strauss’s belief that a good leader does not instil fear in his followers.

Man-in-waiting: 50-over captain Alastair Cook has ambitions of one day succeeding Andrew Strauss as England's Test skipper. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

“This perception that a good captain is someone who beats his chest and roars like a lion and gives big Churchillian speeches, that’s just not what leadership is about for me,” he says. “You can rule by fear but it’s not a great motivation for people. People much prefer to feel part of something and that they’re appreciated and wanted, that their voice actually holds some sway, rather than just having someone barking orders at them.”

To go with their status as the top Test team, England are also world Twenty20 champions but the current one-day series in India has acted as a wake-up call. Yesterday’s eight-wicket defeat in Delhi was the tourists’ second heavy loss in less than a week.

“Our one-day cricket still needs to improve a long way – it’s in a bit of a transition period,” says Strauss. “Some really good players are coming out of county cricket. Better preparation, and looking after yourself physically are things that counties should still have to strive for. Also, the volume of county cricket is still far too high. I’d definitely like less county cricket.”

But it’s not just at the domestic level that Strauss believes the fixture list needs to be addressed given that there are now three forms of cricket competing for space.

“It’s very important the administrators look at what we need to advance the status of the game: how much Test cricket; how much one day cricket; and where does Twenty20 sit with all that? If you’re just led by what’s most commercially viable, that’s not necessarily in the best interests of the game.”

Strauss himself will be tested again in January when he leads England against Pakistan in United Arab Emirates, followed by a visit to Sri Lanka.

He sees the two Test tours as real challenges and says: “Any illusions that we can strut about and think we’re No1 will be cruelly shattered if we’re not willing to put in the hard work needed on the sub-continent.”

That first Test against Pakistan will mean he will come back to cricket after five months – the biggest gap England have had without a Test match since 1999.

Strauss says: “This break from cricket has been very welcome but now I have to go back to the gym and put in the hard work myself.”


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