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Strauss under Stress at Galle and Beyond

March 31, 2012

Michael Atherton in The Weekend Australian, 31 March 2012 and the Times, under a different title: “Fall of Galle leaves discordant Andrew Strauss in need of a big innings”

GALLE has rarely been kind to England captains. More often than not, they have travelled the coast road back to Colombo having been gently basted in the sun, knowing that they have come off second-best. No England captain has left Galle a winner. Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss have all struggled there, both as captains and batsmen, Vaughan’s twin draws (hanging on, nine wickets down in 2003, and then saved by the rain in 2007) a triumph compared with the innings defeat suffered by Hussain and the 75-run defeat inflicted on Strauss yesterday.

Watching Strauss in the aftermath of defeat, it was Hussain I was thinking of. During England’s first ever Test match in Galle, Hussain was in the middle of a horror trot.

The team was playing well – we had just won in Pakistan – but he could not buy a run and, as all captains will tell you, the job becomes doubly difficult when you are struggling to justify your place in the team.

We were staying in a posh hotel called the Lighthouse, just minutes from Galle, and one night I bumped into Hussain wandering the corridors, with that familiar haunted look on his face that all ex-England captains recognise. He wanted to talk; wanted to know whether he had the support of the team. I was happy to be able to talk honestly and tell him that he did. We respected the job he was doing but, and these were probably my parting words, it was about time he pulled his finger out and got some runs.

The consensus is that Strauss’s captaincy is no longer assured. You only have to walk around the press box and read the reports (some concentrated on Strauss’s dismissal and ignored the wonderful Test match that was unfolding on Day 3) to sniff the mood.

It is remarkable how quickly these things change: a double Ashes-winning captain who only months ago was celebrating taking England to the top of the world rankings is suddenly being asked to look over his shoulder.

Whenever Strauss has been asked about the pressure on one of his own players, his stock answer has always been the same: that the dressing room is a protective place and the pressure exerted from outside – from the media or supporters – does not necessarily filter through. Nevertheless, he would have to have peculiarly insensitive antennae not to sense the changing mood towards him.

When you are the focus of the press conference’s questions, you know what is being written, what is being said. For myself, I don’t think his captaincy is yet in crisis. He has proven himself too often, is held in too high regard by his team and has too much goodwill stored for thin times such as these, for that.

A captain is best judged by the look and manner of a team in the field and, throughout the winter, England have been outstanding in this regard. If only the batsmen had done their jobs, things could have been very different.

As it happens, Strauss did not have his best match in the field in Galle. When Sri Lanka lost three quick wickets on the first morning, he was quick to go on the defensive, ignoring the dictum that you need to attack when the ball is new in Galle because there is plenty of time to defend later.

On the third morning, when England needed quick wickets, he again had too few men around the bat to Suranga Lakmal and a gloved catch fell to ground.

But a leader is best judged by his effect on the group, rather than the quibbles over tactics, which are in any case so difficult to quantify. The respect in which he is held is obvious. He didn’t carry that haunted look in the immediate aftermath of the match, but should he find himself wandering the corridors of the team hotel late in the evening, and should he bump into a straight-talking teammate, he would get the same kind of honest response I gave Hussain all those years ago. He would get the reassurance that he may not, for all we know, require.

No crisis, then, but he does need runs before it develops into one. No captain can survive as a passenger for too long and, having scored just one Test hundred in 48 innings, just one since the Lord’s Test of 2009, Strauss is in danger of receiving passenger status.

For a man known for his excellent conversion rate and for a man with more Test hundreds for England than anybody save Wally Hammond, Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, Ken Barrington and Colin Cowdrey, that is a poor return. He is not playing badly (he averages more than 30 in that time), but nor is he scoring enough runs, and runscoring is a habit as much as anything else.

Now that he is absent more often, because of his decision to step down from the one-day team, he does not have the opportunity, taken by Kevin Pietersen in the UAE, for example, of putting poor Test form behind him in the one-day game. Runs, then, are what Strauss needs. A winning team can accommodate a struggling captain more than a losing team can and England, he will need no reminding, have lost four consecutive Tests. The next match in Colombo is an important one for Strauss, more so perhaps than any Test since Napier four years ago when he scored a career-saving hundred.

He probably does need reminding, as it is so long ago, of what happened to Hussain after that match in Galle: he scored a hundred in Kandy, in a match and a series that England went on to win. With a captaincy record such as Strauss’s, it takes time for the pressure to build. It will dissipate more quickly, but only if he remembers that his selection, first and foremost, depends on his performance as a player and not as a captain.

Time for him to pull his finger out and score some runs.

The Times

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