Relaxed and ready for the Ashes challenge

Published : Jul 04, 2009 00:00 IST

Andrew Strauss, the England captain, tells Donald McRae that he believes his side can exploit Australia’s vulnerabilities.

As the expectation becomes nerve-shredding for the start of the first Ashes Test of the 2009 series, all the tension and uncertainty can be offset by a safe prediction that Andrew Strauss will remain the calmest man both on and off the field. His assurance is evident when, having just revealed his troubling doubts about accepting the position as England captain after it was thrust upon him at the start of this year, he coolly compares the difference between now and then.

“If you ask me for my gut reaction about this series my feelings are very different to what they would’ve been six months ago,” Strauss says pointedly. “Six months ago I was very concerned about how things were looking. But, now, we’re in a very good place. I’ll concede that we’ve played West Indies exclusively (with a 1–0 series defeat in the Caribbean followed by a 2-0 thrashing of the same team at home), and so it’s hard to measure us against other sides, but we’ve got a really strong spirit. And there’s been enough success to whet the appetite and encourage people to work even harder.”

Strauss leans forward, and his quietly booming voice resonates as he reiterates his conviction. “I like the characters we’ve got in our side. I don’t think any of these guys are going to shirk from a challenge and I believe we’re going to play the kind of cricket we need to beat Australia. And if we use the conditions well I think we’ve got a really good chance.

“Captaincy is a confidence game. When the team is winning and your decisions go well that breeds confidence. You either back your instincts or you hold off — and you’re more likely to back your instincts if you’re confident. That’s why I’m in a better place as captain now than I was a couple of years ago (when he acted as a successful stand-in leader against Pakistan in 2007). I’m more experienced and more sure how I want to captain England.”

In the first week of January, however, English cricket was in familiar disarray. Kevin Pietersen, a great cricketer but a less considered captain than Strauss, had fallen out so bitterly with Peter Moores, the head coach, that both men were jettisoned as the England and Wales Cricket Board scrabbled about in search of replacements. Even though they appointed Andy Flower as an interim head coach, all their hopes for a new captain were pinned on Strauss. The irony was obvious for, after missing out previously on the captaincy to Andrew Flintoff, a worrying slump in his batting form had resulted in Strauss being dropped by England in late 2007.

The ECB could have become even more rudderless, for Strauss confesses now that he had real doubts about assuming the captaincy. “Yeah, definitely,” he confirms. “There are three sides to it. The first was the circumstances in which they asked me to take over — which was pretty unpleasant with both the captain and the coach going. Secondly, there was the effect on my family life. I was only playing Test cricket and then I was also coming into the one-day side and taking on everything associated with the captaincy. And thirdly, and most importantly, I had to ask myself, ‘How much do I really want this job?’ It was not something I had openly coveted. I was happy with where I was and I was starting to bat nicely.”

Fortunately for England, he finally accepted. “As soon as I came to the realisation that, actually, I did want the job it was a fairly simple decision because I knew I’d regret not taking it. But it took 24 hours to reach that decision.”

Amid the chaos and strife Strauss and Flower had been flung together — and the captain reflects on how that joint adversity shaped their strong alliance. “I remember sitting down at my home, having just been handed the captaincy, and Andy was there as new coach, in a caretaking role. We were both stepping into the unknown. We had to plot our way through it together.”

Their route seemed even more tangled after the humiliation of their first Test in charge which resulted in an innings defeat — as England were dismissed for 51 by West Indies. Strauss pinpoints that devastating loss as the moment when a fractured team began to heal itself. “We had a very honest meeting after that defeat in Jamaica. A lot of things were said that needed to be said. We walked out of it feeling much better about ourselves as a group because people had got things off their chest they had kept bottled up.

“Since then our cricket has been pretty consistent — and the important thing was the way we responded in a crisis. There were frustrations over the way we had played in the last 12 months. Maybe we had swept those frustrations under the carpet and we needed to get them out. It was a cleansing process.”

Strauss suggests that previous problems within the England team festered in a closed environment. “I’ve always felt that, in the past, there has been a teacher-pupil relationship between the management and the players. But the best teams are run in such a way that the players have a voice.

“So far it’s worked exceptionally — look at guys like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Jimmy’s reasonably quiet but he’s really come out of himself. He’s now contributing a huge amount on and off the pitch. When I came in I spoke about player responsibility — and giving the players more responsibility for the way they prepare and more of a say in how we play our cricket. A lot of it is to do with people not thinking that they have to say the right thing — but say and do what they feel is right.”

He and Flower “are looking ahead as part of a long-term view of English cricket that goes beyond the Ashes, to be frank. This Ashes series is important but the progression has to go much further than that. I would think some of the things we want to implement will take two years minimum.”

Their ambition appears to echo that of Duncan Fletcher who, at least briefly in 2005, came close to turning England into the world’s best Test team. “We’ve definitely got goals along those lines,” Strauss says. “I don’t want to go into it so much because that’s something for us to discuss as a team.”

It might be assumed that Strauss, as a fierce competitor despite his laid-back persona, plans on England eventually replacing Australia as the No. 1 team in the world. Strauss hesitates before, unusually, bristling. “I think you’re putting words in my mouth there,” he protests before his amiable self re-emerges. “But, yes, you’d be foolish if you went into this job and said, ‘Oh no, we don’t want to be the best team in the world’.”

Strauss has no illusions about how much England need to improve before they can even consider that prospect — but he is heartened by Australia’s vulnerability. He seems unsurprised that they were beaten at home by South Africa just as he was plunged into the England captaincy. “You can’t lose the likes of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer without feeling some effect. It takes a huge amount to replace those guys and I don’t believe it’s possible for young players to match that level of performance straight away. Having said that, you’re never going to face a weak Australia. They’re always going to be competitive. But that aura about them has dissipated. More teams believe they can beat Australia now.”

Typically, Australia regrouped and won the return series in South Africa — with Mitchell Johnson and Phillip Hughes rejuvenating the team. “Johnson’s bowling very well and the novelty value of being a left-handed seamer poses difficult questions for batsmen. I’m sure Ricky Ponting will be expecting big things from him. But their inexperienced players are going to have to hit the ground running and hopefully we can use our conditions to our advantage.”

Strauss and Hughes were team-mates for Middlesex earlier this season — and the young Australian batsman scored heavily in county cricket. They even put on a second-wicket partnership of 244 against Leicestershire in the one match they played together.

Hughes matched the England captain with a century but Strauss outscored him when they were at the crease together — with 150 to Hughes’s 88. “He’s obviously very confident,” Strauss says of the 20-year-old. “It’s always impressive when a youngster backs himself with an unorthodox technique.”

How did Hughes’s tendency to step away awkwardly to leg to create space for himself look from 22 yards away?

“His technique is not one you’d see in England very much,” Strauss says, grinning. “It looks largely self-taught and he plays shots you wouldn’t normally play. That unorthodoxy can be a huge asset — but also a huge challenge. It’s important we work out his weaknesses.”

Strauss shrugs dismissively at the ritual Aussie pronouncement that, as England captain, he will be targeted unmercifully. “They always say that — but that kind of stuff is honestly the least of my concerns.”

Both teams are more concerned about playing the first Test against an unfamiliar Ashes backdrop in Cardiff.

“The last time I played against Glamorgan in Cardiff was 2004,” Strauss says ruefully.

“They’ve re-laid the outfield and made huge improvements to the ground but it’s going to be one of those moments when both teams are going to have to react to a new set of circumstances at a new ground. Why worry about it?”

In a similar way Strauss has his own composed plans to deflect the stress of leading an Ashes team. “You can’t compartmentalise everything but the more you do that the easier it is. Keeping a notebook is a good way of dealing with it. You can rest from any thoughts if you put them down on paper. But we’re playing five Tests in seven weeks so it’s going to be draining.”

And then, as if to remind England how lucky they were to have stumbled on him as their captain six months ago, Strauss looks up as a smile spreads across his face at the prospect. “The good thing is that I feel calm and prepared. I’m ready for it.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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