Excellent. Just as I was looking for a story that might distract everyone from Ashes debacle along comes a juicy one. I thought today’s article might have to be about England’s unchanged squad for the 5th test – a depressingly predictable move by Ed Smith. However, the news that Boycott and Strauss have been knighted offers endless opportunity for debate. It might raise people’s blood pressure too. And that’s the perfect recipe to forget all about Steve FFS Smith.
Before I delve into the rights and wrong of these honours – which were pretty much the last vestiges of cricket-mad Theresa May’s mad premiership – I’ll briefly describe my reaction to this news when I was happily munching my cornflakes this morning. Hint: never have a mouth full of orange juice when you hear that Olly Robbins has been knighted. You’ll completely soak the person sitting opposite you.
First let’s address Sir Geoffrey – who really is a ‘sir’ now. My immediate thought was “some people aren’t going to like this”. Although I enjoy Boycott’s commentary because he isn’t afraid to put the boot in when necessary, he’s a bit of a marmite figure at TMS. What’s, more he’s not exactly known for his political correctness.
We all know about his conviction for assaulting his girlfriend in France (something he’s always vociferously denied) but there were also his controversial remarks about his failure to secure a knighthood a couple of years ago. He joked that he’d be more likely to receive the honour if he ‘blacked up’ – a reference to the number of West Indian cricketers who have been knighted. Such comments might go down well in certain quarters but they’re also likely to offend large swathes of the population.
However, today I’d like to focus more on Andrew Strauss than Boycott. Why? Because although many see the decision to knight Boycott as the controversial one, I actually think Strauss’s knighthood is more contentious if we focus exclusively on cricket. After all, both men have officially received knighthoods for ‘services to sport‘ according to the official government website; therefore we have to assume that Sir Andrew’s brilliant recent charity work didn’t come into the equation. It’s worth reminding people at this point that Ian Botham was officially knighted for ‘services to sport and charity’.
If we leave aside all other matters then there’s no doubt whatsoever that Boycott deserves this honour. He scored just over 8,000 test runs at an average of 47 (a brilliant average for his era) in 108 tests. Strauss, on the other hand, scored just over 7000 runs in 100 tests at an average of 41 (which was unremarkable for his era). We have to assume, therefore, that Strauss was also knighted for his captaincy record and his subsequent shortish stint as an ECB administrator.
Leaving aside Strauss’s recent personal tragedy and his superb work for the Ruth Strauss foundation, which raised over three hundred thousand pounds at Lord’s this summer, it’s my contention that Andrew Strauss the cricketer sadly does not deserve this knighthood. It’s awkward to say this as I have enormous respect for the man, and I have incredible sympathy him and his family over the tragic loss of his wife, but this article is all about achievements in sport.
First lets look at Strauss the batsman. In my opinion (which is supported by the stats), Strauss was the seventh best England opening batsman of the last 30 years. The following players all had better records: Marcus Trescothick (44), Graham Gooch (43), Alastair Cook (45), Michael Vaughan (averaged 45 as an opener), Alec Stewart (45 as an opener), and Mike Atherton (38).
The only somewhat contentious one here is Athers. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that Atherton was a better player than Strauss. It’s just that his career stats are skewed slightly by (a) the chronic back injury that made him a sitting duck in the last year or so of his career, and (b) the fact he had to face Donald, Pollock, Wasim, Waqar, Ambrose, Walsh etc for the majority of his entire career. Strauss just about missed these guys.
However, as mentioned above, the Strauss story is possibly more about his captaincy than his batting. It’s a powerful narrative too. “He took an ailing test side, grabbed them by the scruff of the neck, led them to number 1 in the world, and a coveted Ashes series down under”. You could make a movie about that. Oh they did? Sorry I’m yet to see The Edge.
The problem with narratives like this one, however, is that eventually it becomes more about myth or legend than fact. Indeed, if one looks closely at Strauss’s record at captain you’ll see that it’s good but hardly brilliant. For starters he inherited a bloody good team containing the likes of Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Collingwood, Flintoff, Prior, Harmison, Broad, Anderson, Panesar and then (later) Trott. Compare that to the guys Gooch and Atherton had to work with. Compare them to the guys Joe Root has to work with now.
What’s more, Strauss’s teams really didn’t achieve anything out of the ordinary – with the exception of that Ashes win down under of course. Here are the series results with Sir Andrew at the helm (I’ve left out Bangladesh tests as he skipped the away tour and they’re easy meat overseas).
West Indies (away) LOST 0-1
West Indies (home) WON 2-0
Australia (home) WON 2-1
South Africa (away) DREW 1-1
Pakistan (home) WON 3-1
Australia (away) WON 3-1
Sri Lanka (home) WON 1-0
India (home) WON 4-0
Pakistan (away) LOST 0-3
Sri Lanka (away) DREW 1-1
South Africa (home) LOST 0-2
As you can see above Strauss mostly won series England are usually expected to win. We normally beat the likes of the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India at home. And we haven’t lost at home against Australia since 2001 … though we should probably watch this space! England basically had a good run for a couple of years but it wasn’t anything extraordinary. For example, England’s run of 6 series victories in a row between 2003-05 was just as impressive, especially as we’d been rubbish for most of the preceding decade.
Meanwhile, Strauss oversaw three terrible series results during his time as captain. The West Indies away (in which we were bowled out for 50 in the first test), a whitewash in the UAE, and a horrible 0-2 reverse in his last series against the Saffers. We also suffered some horrific ODI defeats while Strauss was in charge, including losing to Ireland in the 2011 World Cup.
Then we come to Strauss’s glorious Ashes win in 2010/11. I don’t want to take anything away from him (or his team) as we were marvellous all tour and I enjoyed it immensely. This was Strauss’s machine at its best: disciplined and efficient. His partnership with Andy Flower was blossoming and captain, coach, and team were clearly on the same page.
However, neither should we forget that this was possibly the weakest Australia team in living memory. Mitchell Johnson was bowling to the left and the right leaving Siddle and Hilfenhaus to lead the attack, Ryan Harris was half-fit or injured all series, and the spin department boasted Xavier Doherty and then Michael Beer. This was the only Ashes series (of seven in total) in which Cook actually scored some runs.
The Aussies’ batting wasn’t much better either. Simon Katich and Shane Watson opened up, Ricky Ponting was past his best, and they were so short of options that journeyman Marcus North occupied the No.6 position. A longish tail by modern standards then followed. One could argue that Mike Gatting’s success down under in 1986/87 was just as much (if not more) of a triumph.
Personally I’ll always remember Strauss as a good leader, a really safe pair of hands, but a very conservative captain. Whereas Michael Vaughan (more about him later) was tactically astute and a great motivator, Strauss’s MO was essentially passive. The method he embraced alongside Flower was to bowl dry and wait for the batsmen to make mistakes. It didn’t make great viewing. And it rarely worked against the very best batsmen either.
What’s more, we mustn’t forget how quickly Strauss’s team disintegrated. We reached No.1 in the world very briefly – it was almost a quirk of the rankings system – and then the whole thing collapsed instantly like the proverbial house of cards. We were woeful in the UAE immediately after reaching the summit, scraped a draw in Sri Lanka thanks to a famous Pietersen hundred, and then got embarrassed at home by the Saffers in which they racked up 637-2 at The Oval. Strauss then resigned.
Although I will always be grateful for that magical 2010-11 Ashes tour, it’s also worth mentioning that Strauss’s England didn’t actually win a series in Asia, which is the other benchmark for successful England teams. It was only when Strauss stood down, and Alastair Cook took over, that we finally won in the subcontinent.
I’m not trying to argue that Strauss was a poor captain here. Far from it. He was a very decent one. I wish he was still playing so that he could take the reins from Joe Root. As I said at the beginning of this piece I have tremendous respect for Sir Andrew. It’s just the ‘Sir’ bit that somewhat bothers me. After all, when you’re dishing out knighthoods you absolutely must judge players and captains by the very highest standards, otherwise you could make a case for any number of cricketers to receive the same honour.
Let’s take Michael Vaughan, for example. Vaughan was both a better batsman and a better captain than Strauss. He didn’t win a series down under as skipper (he never got the chance) but he did win player of the series in 2002-03 after scoring a remarkable 633 runs at an average of 63 against one of the best bowling attacks of all time. It was the best individual batting performance I’ve seen from an England player.
What’s more, Vaughan was the architect of England’s amazing 2005 Ashes win (our first in nine attempts) in which we beat an absolutely brilliant Australia team full of all time greats in perhaps the greatest test series of all time. Vaughan was also in charge when England won those aforementioned six series in a row between 2003-05 which included our first win in South Africa for decades.
I’m not trying to argue that Vaughan should be knighted too by the way. I just think it’s inconsistent for one to be knighted and not the other. In my opinion neither of them should be knighted. Why? Because the only other English cricketer knighted in my lifetime (before Cook) was Sir Ian Botham. And he was knighted predominantly for his charity work. I don’t understand why we’re now knighting cricketers willy nilly. It devalues the honour and seems unfair on those who went before and arguably achieved more.
The final reason why I do not believe that Strauss should be knighted is his mixed record as an administrator. Once again I can understand the compelling narrative “he took one of the worst ODI teams in the world and made them world champions”, but I think we all know it’s a bit more complicated than that – especially as we’ve just failed to regain the Ashes as a direct consequence of some of the decisions Strauss made in office.
Yes Strauss deserves credit for appointing Trevor Bayliss which helped us to win the world cup. I supported this decision at the time as I believed he was right to ignore the public clamour for Jason Gillespie. However, we can’t ignore that Bayliss has also been a poor coach of England’s test team, which has clearly gone backwards in recent years. We can’t ignore the bad and only focus on the good.
What’s more, Strauss was at best complicit, and at worse instrumental, in the gradual marginalisation of the county championship in recent years. England failed in the Ashes (amongst other disasters like being bowled out in a single session four times in recent series) precisely because of the ECB’s white ball focus. Yes Strauss helped us win the World Cup. But he must also take a large proportion of blame for our worst test batting line-up in recent memory. The first class cupboard is bare and Strauss’s fingerprints are all over the handles.
I should reiterate that I have nothing against Strauss personally. He’s a man of integrity and intelligence. He’ll always have his place in English cricketing folklore. But knighting him isn’t the best look in my opinion. Some will see the decision to knight Alastair Cook, who was famously praised for belonging to “the right sort of family” by former ECB chairman Giles Clarke, and now Andrew Strauss, who’s obviously from similar establishment stock, as an indication of class bias in the honours system.
Or maybe Theresa May simply doesn’t know cricket as well as she thinks she does.