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.