Debuts are supposed to be hard, but Andrew Strauss' England debut was a thing of rare promise. Stepping in for the injured Michael Vaughan and opening the batting against New Zealand at Lord's in 2004.
112 in his first innings — 83 in the second, an innings only cut short because of the questionable running of Nasser Hussain, and Strauss had, in two innings, rendered himself undroppable. Hussain, sensed as much, announcing his own retirement after that Test to watch England and Strauss in the years that followed from the commentary box.
His batting form of recent times could make you forget what a remarkable opener he was capable of being. He drew comparisons at first with an Australian team-mate at Middlesex, Justin Langer — a man who thought hard about his game, understood his limitations and played within them, dispatching the cut and pull with authority. He immediately had the air of senior player, albeit without the caps to match.
Strauss' arrival to the international game was devastating. After 11 Tests, Strauss had hit five tons, including three in four in South Africa, and taken his average to 63.26.
All the while, captain Michael Vaughan and coach Duncan Fletcher were building a side which was finally and decisively emerging from the doldrums of the 1990s. By the summer of 2005, England had completed the transition from laughing stock into Ashes winners. Strauss was the only player from either side to hit two centuries in the series.
England's Ashes win turned out to be the end of the journey rather than the start. In the years which followed, injuries and loss of form diminished the side. Vaughan was injured, while his vice captain, Marcus Trescothick, was in no state of mind to play, let alone captain.
Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss were the next in line. But while Strauss had led his side to a comfortable 3-1 Test series victory over Pakistan with Fred injured, Fletcher gave the job to Flintoff for the Ashes Down Under in 2006/7. A 5-0 defeat of cruel and unusual punishment followed.
A change of coach nor the return of Vaughan could not lift England out of their malaise.
Strauss, meanwhile, passed over for the biggest job, had his own form desert him. After 43 Tests, he lost a sense of where his off stump was. He was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka in 2007/8, brought back with little initial success in New Zealand later in the winter, and was thought to be an innings away from the permanent axe.
Scratchily, but with no small determination, he ground out the runs, scoring a career-saving (and still a career-best) 177 in Napier.
Strauss' grit cemented his place in the team once again, but again he missed out on the captaincy as Kevin Pietersen was given the role. Six months later, and after a farrago of embarrassments which saw coach and captain stripped of their jobs, the captaincy finally fell to him.
England under Strauss and Flower went from 51 all out and beaten by an innings in Jamaica to Ashes winners in little over six months. The team grew, evolved, and, most importantly, kept winning. Two and a half years after he had taken the job, under Strauss' watchful eye England had won an Ashes series in Australia, walloped India 4-0 at home, and become the world's top-ranked Test side.
With the bat, Strauss had what retrospectively looks like an Indian summer in 2008-9. He had become more than a back-foot player in that time — he had developed more aggression and improved his driving, as evinced by his efforts as ODI captain. Having been some way from the first choice XI when given the job, and having had his credentials openly questioned by the media, he responded with some impressive returns, none better than the 158 against India in last year's World Cup.
Strauss was no rabble-rouser. He was unerringly sensible, pragmatic and unselfish.
Just as a batsman, he knew his limitations and those of his team, and worked within them. That made him appear cautious at times: declaring too late, dropping the field back too early. But the results he coaxed out of England were unprecedented. He was driven and focused, yet remained likeable and respected at home and abroad.
Standing down, he admitted that his batting form had not been good enough for a long time. Until this year, his captaincy had compensated for that, but with a year until the next Ashes series, this, he calculated, was the right point for all concerned for a change of leadership. There was minimal emotion in his farewell press conference — he had made a considered decision, not one borne of emotion, or a knee-jerk reaction to the ongoing Pietersen saga. It is his last selfless call for the team, a team that he leaves in far ruder health than when he inherited it.
And despite his batting travails, it is telling that there is no obvious replacement for him. There is no opening batsman in the first-class game making an irresistible case to join new skipper Alastair Cook at the crease.
He hit heights as a batsman and a captain for England that few have equalled, even if he could not sustain them. He became just the fifth English player to play 100 Tests for his country, he won three Ashes series, including back-to-back ones as captain, and hit 21 Test centuries.
He deserves to leave the game on his own terms, but England have lost a fine servant.
- Sports & Recreation
- Andrew Strauss
- Michael Vaughan