We all love Straussy, but was he as good as some would have us believe?
They say a history degree is useless. They’re half right. Although I spent more time drinking than learning vocational skills at university, I did learn one valuable lesson: to get to the truth (if there is any such thing as objective truth) one must look at both sides of the story.
That’s why all the tributes to Andrew Strauss over the last few days have puzzled me somewhat. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Strauss as a cricketer and I admire him enormously as a man, but recent praise of his record has gone way over the top.
Indeed, if one didn’t follow cricket at all – and all one knew of Strauss was what had been written over the last few days – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Strauss was some sort of superhuman with the bat, and a field general with the tactical nous of Napoleon in the field. He was neither.
Personally, I will remember Strauss as a safe pair of hands and a highly skilled diplomat. His best attributes were presentational (he was highly articulate and insightful in press conferences) and his ability not to panic under pressure.
When England were in a tight spot on the field, Strauss always exuded calm authority. Although this expression has been used far too much in recent times – from posters to novelty mugs and uninspiring advertising campaigns – his mantra really could have been ‘keep calm and carry on’. That’s why he dealt with the Pakistani Spot Fixing Scandal and the recent Kevin Pietersen shenanigans so skilfully.
In cricketing terms, however, Strauss was merely serviceable as a test batsman – and as a captain, he did not belong in the top bracket. His career average of 41 just about sums it up.
Like most international players with somewhat mixed records, Strauss was capable of brilliance at times – his hundreds against Australian in 2009 and his century against India in the last World Cup spring to mind – but he also went through alarming slumps in form. This is probably because his technique wasn’t the best.
Strauss was essentially a back-foot player who only looked comfortable driving down the ground when in peak form. He also had problems against high class spin bowlers (and Nathan Hauritz); in my opinion this was another reason why he retired when he did. Strauss suspected he might struggle in India this winter.
Having said that, however, when the pitches were hard and the bowling was fierce, Strauss was a high class opening batsman – particularly early in his career. His hundreds in South Africa under Michael Vaughan proved that.
However, we must also not forget that he often looked all at sea. All batsmen have periods where they’re out of nick, but few got the yips like Strauss did before he was ‘rested’ in 2007. He was only one knock away from international oblivion when a big hundred at Napier against a poor New Zealand team saved his career. It is interesting to note than even Tim Ambrose scored a test ton on that tour.
As a captain, if you take away the two Ashes victories against a deteriorating Australian side, Strauss’ record was unremarkable. I admit this is stretching the point somewhat, as England’s performances at home in 2009 and 2010/11 were extremely memorable, but we shouldn’t forget that Strauss lost his first series as captain against the West Indies in 2009 – as poor a result as England have had in the last decade – and we suffered numerous embarrassments in one day cricket during his tenure. Who can forget the defeat to Ireland in the World Cup?
Furthermore, Strauss’ infuriating conservatism played a major part in both the aforementioned defeat to the Windies (when tardy declarations cost the side dear) and our recent defeat to South Africa, when the continued selection of an unbalanced side with seven batsmen and four bowlers got comprehensively outgunned by a more rounded and aggressive outfit.
Not everyone agrees with this, but I will never understand why we left out the likes of Finn, Swann and Onions (even in must win games) in order to make room for unproven batsmen like Taylor and Bopara. The team had batsmen capable of making half centuries at number ten for heaven sake. What we needed was more bowling firepower.
In the other series in which Strauss was captain, we beat a distracted Pakistan side in 2010 (a series in which we hardly played vintage cricket and lost the final test at the Oval), and drew with South Africa away in a series we would have lost 3-1 had it not been for Graham Onion’s batting on the final evening (twice).
We might have looked impressive against India when we rose to the top of the test rankings in 2011, but our form since has been wretched – losing 3-0 in the UAE, failing to defeat a Sri Lankan side that hadn’t beaten anyone of note for several months, suffering embarrassments at the hands of Tino Best, Darren Sammy and Dinesh Ramdin earlier this summer, and then suffering our heaviest defeat in living memory against the Cricketboks at the Oval.
Please don’t think I’m arguing that Strauss was a poor captain – far from it. My aim is simply to present the other side to the story. Strauss was a highly dependable captain and will go down in history as one of our most successful leaders. But was he as good as journalists are making out?
In this observer’s opinion, Strauss was no Michael Vaughan. He was calm under pressure, but was he inventive and dynamic? Did he make things happen? Strauss’ strategy was always to stay in the game and wait for the opposition to make mistakes. This is a strategy that held South African cricket back for years.
And is the England team better now than when Strauss took over in 2009? It’s a matter of opinion. The XI we fielded in his first match in charge was Strauss, Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Collingwood, Flintoff, Prior, Broad, Sidebottom, Harmison, Panesar.
How does this compare to Strauss, Cook, Trott, Bell, Taylor, Bairstow, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Finn (the XI at Lord’s last week)? I’d say it’s pretty close. The team he inherited had five bowlers and was arguably stronger in batting. Losing Flintoff to injury was a big blow, but the emergence of Swann was surely some compensation.
In conclusions therefore (how many undergraduate history essays sign off like this?) I’d simply reiterate that Strauss was a safe pair of hands. He inherited a strong England team and, like all competent leaders, kept us away from troubled waters. But was England’s success because of Strauss? I’d argue not. However, I wouldn’t argue that England’s success was in spite of Strauss either.
Andrew Strauss wasn’t a great batsman; neither was he a great captain. But he certainly wasn’t a bad cricketer either. Let’s just say he was decent on the field, and thoroughly decent off it – which is why, presumably, so many journalists have been extra kind to him this week.
Blimey this is a depressing article! An alternative take on the Strauss era 2009-2012, whereby any success was merely down to poor or disinterested opposition.
That’s rather an unfair generalisation Bish! I’m merely trying to say that Strauss was a good, not great batsman – and a good but not great captain. This is a refreshing opinion compared to all the misty eyed gushing that’s gone on in recent days. Strauss’ record was won 6 series, lost 3 and drawn 2. That is good, but not exceptional. It is inferior to Vaughan. who beat a far stronger Australian team (one of the best ever).
England sides have beaten the Windies, Pakistan and India at home in the vast majority of series since the 1990s. So what makes Strauss special? In my opinion in was his diplomatic skills and his calm head. After all, it certainly wasn’t his batting. An average of 41 is average by modern standards and considerably less than the rest of England’s top five. However, because we won the Ashes twice under Strauss (in an era when Australia aren’t top dog anymore) he’s hailed as a messiah by many. This is a far more extreme view than anything I’ve asserted above.
I’m just tyring to be a bit more realistic about Strauss, with the emotion of two Ashes wins removed. Ponitng won the Ashes more than once as captain, but that doesn’t make him a remarkable tactician. A captain is often as good as the bowling attack he possesses, and this is just as true of Strauss as it is of anyone else. I reckon my opinion is more in line with Strauss’ own opinion of his achievements (certainly his batting) than many of the over the top eulogies in the media recently.
The counter-argument (and I think this is right) is that the team had the potential to play well when Strauss took over, but was actually in a complete mess, as revealed in
…the Jamaican collapse. He did unbelievably well to turn that round, win the Ashes twice and reach No 1 before the wheels started to fall off.
(Part III, as logging in seems not to be working): This trajectory, achieved with substantially the same resources, measures the effect of Strauss as captain plus Flower as coach.
Again I think this is a myth. Yes England were unstable when Strauss took over, but results had been reasonably good over the last few years. England were not a mess on the field, they were a mess off it because KP fell out with the coach. The real transformation of England’s fortunes occurred in the latter days of Hussain’s time in charge and was continued / brought to fruition under Vaughan.
The 2006/07 Ashes was an aberration really (injuries were horrific: Trescothick, Vaughan, Jones missing and Flintoff / Harmison off field issues) – as was the Jamaica result, which happened on Strauss’ watch. We also lost that Windies series because we didn’t win either of the next two matches (due in large part to Strauss’ conservative declarations).
It’s simply not true that Strauss took a struggling team and moulded them into world beaters. Remember that England were prolific in 2003/2004 when we won 7 tests in a row – then 2005 speaks for itself. England were actually competitive through most of the 2000s really – Strauss was just a safe pair of hands looking after a side that was already pretty good.
Just for the record, Pietersen’s record as test captain (immediately before Strauss took over) was won 1, lost 1, drawn 1. Those games were a win against South Africa at home (we also beat them 4-0 in the ODI series), then a loss and a draw away to India. Three very difficult games. Yes, we lost at home to SA in 2008 before KP took over (no change there then!), but we beat New Zealand in back to back series before that.
I think a fair assessment of Strauss, as both batsman and captain, is that he made the best of what he had. He batted well within his limitations, keeping mostly to a few shots. As captain he inherited a side in disarray and with the Fab Four bowling attack of 2005 as good as finished, but got more out of a much more limited attack than many thought possible. He wasn’t the first England skipper to fail in the sub-continent and he won’t be the last.