London – It was apt in this Olympic year that Andrew Strauss should say he had “run his race” when he took his leave from cricket yesterday.
There was to be no gold medal at the end of his very own marathon but nobody within the England cricket team has better embodied the Games ideal than their selfless, statesmanlike leader.
Strauss insisted it was his lack of runs, rather than the Kevin Pietersen text fiasco, that made him decide to go. “The driver of it all was my form with the bat,” he said. “I haven’t played well enough for a long time now. For a captain to perform his role properly it’s important that he’s not a passenger and also that people are not speculating as to whether he should be in the side. I knew I wasn’t going to improve. I’ve run my race.’
Strauss inherited the England captaincy in the midst of a crisis involving Pietersen and he leaves it three-and-a-half years later amid more KP-induced turmoil but this retirement from all cricket has little to do with the debilitating effects of that particular wheel turning full circle.
Sandwiched between the two Pietersen affairs has come a truly golden period in which Strauss became one of England’s most successful captains.
There have been home and away Ashes successes and the high of thrashing India to go top of the world last year, but Strauss’s powers have been on the wane since then and he has acted now to try to make sure his side’s concurrent slide can be arrested. As ever, he put the interests of Team England first.
“It hasn’t occurred overnight,” said Strauss as he sat between his boss Hugh Morris and his successor Alastair Cook at Lord’s. “It’s been a feeling that has grown in the last six to 12 months and in the last few weeks it has become apparent that this is the right time. I wanted to go on my own terms with my head held high. This is the best time to do that. You just feel it in your heart.”
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Perhaps we should have realised a 2-0 defeat by South Africa coupled with a batting average of 17 from three Tests for the 35-year-old added up to the end. After all, that captain slayer Graeme Smith was in charge of the opposition and both Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan will tell you what happens when he is in town.
It was just that with Pietersen left out for disciplinary reasons and England wobbling all year, Strauss’s calm hand on the tiller seemed to be needed more than ever in India this winter. That this news came as a shock said everything about how, as Cook said, you can take some people for granted.
“I go out with absolutely no regrets,” insisted Strauss. “I’ve achieved a lot more than I thought I would. That makes me feel very proud and honoured. I like to feel I played the game in the right way and adhered to my principles. If people remember me for that I’ll be very happy.
“The last week or two haven’t been ideal but I like to think I’ve gone out at a good time. We may have lost that final Test but I’ve never been prouder of an England team. The way they played at Lord’s after all the distractions, the way they stuck together and the resolve and fight everyone showed was a fantastic way for me to go out. The players kindly got me a hundred bottles of wine for my 100th Test and I think they will furnish me very well in my retirement.”
There was a smile from Strauss but enormous sadness among all present. It did not quite end literally in tears, as it did for Hussain at Edgbaston and Vaughan at Loughborough, but there were plenty of metaphorical ones and a large elephant in the ECB rooms in the form of Pietersen. Has he ultimately driven his captain out of office with his “provocative” texts about Strauss to South African players and his disloyal behaviour at Headingley?
“No, not in any way,” insisted Strauss. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I first spoke to (coach) Andy Flower about it before the whole business reared its head. It hasn’t been a consideration. What happened hasn’t undermined me in the eyes of the team. It has been a difficult thing to deal with but nothing that has made me more or less inclined to lead the side forward. I knew my time was up probably before the South African series and certainly by the end of it I knew it was time to go.”
Strauss eventually made up his mind while on holiday with his family in the aftermath of the Lord’s Test. He pulled out of Middlesex’s match at Worcester on Monday night and then informed all at the ECB on Tuesday. Significantly, there were no attempts by Flower nor anyone else to change his mind.
There seems to be a four-year cycle for England captains, apart from Pietersen, and Strauss has pretty much reached the end of his.
The players were all informed, rather quaintly, in the form of letters hand-written by Strauss and given to them after they had lost to South Africa at the Ageas Bowl. He is yet to speak to them all personally about his decision but he will do. No texts, provocative or otherwise, nor emails for the England captain. He is not that sort of bloke.
“It’s a hugely sad moment, saying goodbye to teammates and, in particular, Andy Flower, who has been a great support for me and has taken the side forward in so many ways,” said Strauss. “But it’s time for the team to refresh and think about how best to retain that No 1 ranking. This is a great way for us to be able to do that. If people still think I should be part of the side then that validates my decision. I would have hated to have outstayed my welcome.”
He was never likely to do that. While Strauss goes off to spend time with his young family, gets his golf handicap down and decides what to do next, England must get ready for India and solve the Pietersen dilemma without the man unwittingly at the centre of the row.
“Nothing has changed with Kevin,’ said Strauss. “There is a process to go through and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
So how would he advise Cook to deal with, shall we say, difficult individuals?
“I’m not going to answer that one directly in case it’s interpreted as being about a certain individual,” said Strauss with a smile. “My advice to Alastair is to savour and enjoy the challenge of captaining your country. Throw yourself into it with everything you’ve got and have no regrets. I’ve got every confidence that’s what Alastair will do.”
Both Morris and Cook talked about dealing with the Pietersen issue “behind closed doors”, with the next step being talks between the batsman, Morris and Flower and it is clear that there is no softening of England’s hardline stance. If anything attitudes may have hardened, particularly among the players who will undoubtedly believe Pietersen may have played a part in the departure of the captain they held in such high regard.
Only pragmatism might save the errant star because without both him and Strauss, England’s top order is going to look mightily inexperienced when faced with the enormous challenge of taking on India in their own conditions.
It could easily be argued that England’s hopes of winning on the sub-continent may depend on somehow re-integrating Pietersen into a dressing room that remains openly hostile towards him.
Jonathan Trott may be promoted to open the batting alongside Cook but that would leave another gap in a middle order that already contains young players in Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor. Yorkshire’s highly promising Joe Root has long been considered Strauss’s eventual successor but will England throw him into the deep end that India represents?
Then there are the question marks over the fitness of Graeme Swann, who was on Wednesday left out of the remaining three one-day internationals against South Africa to rest his chronic elbow problem ahead of the World Twenty20. He will be replaced for now by James Tredwell but Swann, who will surely need another operation on that right elbow soon, is integral to England’s chances of thriving in India and beyond with a four-man attack. Over to you, captain Cook.
At least the new Test leader will have the enormous presence of Flower alongside him to drive the rebuilding process because Morris moved quickly on Wednesday to reassure everyone that the team director is in no hurry to follow Strauss out of the exit door.
“Andy Flower still has enormous energy and enthusiasm for the job,” said Morris, managing director of Team England. “He’s very excited about the challenges ahead over the next two or three years. Andy is fully committed to that. He’s really looking forward to working with Alastair with the Test team.”
Flower will have to do that, though, without the man who he has worked so well and so productively with since the beginning of 2009. The Flower-Strauss combo proved to be a cricketing marriage made in heaven and only time will tell whether he can truly have the same chemistry with Cook. There was a round of applause from the media when Strauss left his final press conference – we hacks are usually too cynical for that sort of thing – and he was heard to say ‘well done mate’ to Cook as the pair disappeared from view.
The new captain is not as comfortable in the public eye as the outgoing leader and Strauss, a team man to the last, recognised that in giving him a pat on the back for his debut performance.
A cricketing statesman and a batsman good enough to score more than 7,000 runs and 21 Test centuries over 100 appearances, 50 of them as captain. Yes, Andrew Strauss will be missed, but the timing of his departure is perfect. – Daily Mail