Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Strauss Conundrum

Strauss celebrating his double hundred at Lord's for Middlesex against Leicestershire, August 2011.
I've loved cricket for as long as Andrew Strauss has been playing Test cricket. Strauss wasn't the reason I fell in love with cricket, Rob Key was with his double century against the West Indies, but his two centuries against the Australians in the 2005 Ashes series made me sit up and pay attention. During the time after the 2005 Ashes and to the present day, Strauss' form has gone through golden, and barren, patches.

He's in a clear barren patch at the moment and the stats do not make pretty reading. If we go from the end of the 2009 Ashes series, in which he was the leading run scorer of either side, it currently stands that he has only scored one century in 42 Test innings, with that century coming against Australia at Brisbane in 2010. His average since the conclusion of that series in 2009 has been 31.14, a far cry from his overall average of 41.15 (which was 42.37 before he became captain in January 2009).

But as this form slump has been happening, the team around him has been performing. His opening partner, Alastair Cook, has been on the rise ever since Mohammad Asif handed him a century at The Oval back in August 2010. Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have all been in prolific form too and part of the reason (along with a hard hitting tail) England posted such mammoth totals in Australia and across the 2011 summer.

Yet things all started to come unstuck in the Middle East back in January. Facing quality spin bowling for the first time in a couple of years, England reverted back to the England many of us have grown up with. Suddenly, reaching 150 was considered par and 400 was a pipe dream. Everyone struggled. England only posted one century partnership on the Test side of the tour. Players who'd been in sparkling form in 2011 were suddenly under pressure.

But Strauss hadn't been in sparkling form in the whites for England in 2011. He scored 256 Test runs in the summer of 2011, 316 in the year overall. With the other batsmen failing around him, as the first innings of the Galle Test showed that England have a poor mental attitude when it comes to playing spin, and suffering a Test series whitewash for the first time as captain of England after leading them to a whitewash over India which saw his team claim number one Test status, Strauss now finds himself at the centre of the media spotlight.  

The closest he came to a Test century last summer was against India, but he was out for 87 at Edgbaston attempting a sweep shot against Mishra, which he missed and ended up getting bowled, which sounds all too familiar. 
During the period since the 2009 Ashes, he has scored nine half centuries, but cannot go on to reach three figures. He, like today in Galle, seems to get himself out, rather than being 'got out' by the batsmen.

Whilst he struggled in the Tests of 2011, his domestic form was fine. For Middlesex, he scored 614 runs (including a century against the touring Sri Lankans, who he then went on to score only 27 runs against in the whole series) at an average of 76.75. It included his maiden first-class double century. He even went to play for Somerset, to help him try and regain some form. He ended up making an unbeaten century and 75 against India, yet in the Test series managed to score a total of 229 runs. In limited overs cricket, which he has now retired from, he was in the list for the highest run scorers at the Cricket World Cup in India. 

Yet he has been unable to transfer this into Test cricket. Granted, facing a Leicestershire side who only won one game all season is a far cry from facing a team who were ranked number one in the world before they visited England, but the old cliché goes that form is temporary and class is permanent.

Is Strauss' Test form something of a concern to him? He stated in a press conference last year that "it is my turn to come to the party", yet nearly a year later, he still has no Test century. His captaincy has been tested. This Test he has been criticised by Geoff Boycott and the journalistic Twitterati for his defensive field placings. Cook's been having a mixed bag of an ODI captaincy since he was appointed back in May last year, but his recent victory in the Middle East (in a whitewash) was a good response to the debacle of the India tour back in October. Home victories over Sri Lanka and India were a good way to start his true reign in charge of the ODI side and, like said, he's been in fantastic form and is beginning to look like a good international limited overs batsman.

Strauss has stated that his aim is at least two more Ashes series. But Strauss is an intelligent man and will know when his time is up and will want to hand over the Test captaincy to Cook  or anyone else when he and Andy Flower feel that the time is right. He and Flower have led England to the top of the ICC Rankings, even though this seems to have been undermined by the horrendous displays in Pakistan and (currently) Sri Lanka. India at the end of this year will be a tough tour too and England won't want to go over there with an inexperienced captain. 

Strauss has the respect, and support, of his team mates (judging by Graeme Swann's comments anyway) and they will want him to find some Test form. Strauss has been in a slump before, back in 2007. He was found out in the 2006/07 Ashes by Australia and feared for his international career before he scored a, at the time, career-best 177 in England's second innings of the final Test at Napier against New Zealand in 2008. Here he came in at 3. Would pushing Trott, or even Bell, to open with Cook and putting him in at 3 or pushing him down the order help him find some Test form?

Should England lose tomorrow in Galle, then they will be 1-0 down in a two match series and desperately clinging on to a number one ranking they worked so hard to obtain. If they lose in Colombo, Strauss will have gone from leading a side who won six out of eight Tests in 2011 to captaining a side who've lost five out of five in 2012, on the continent that they were trying to crack to prove his team were worthy of a number one ranking. 

Whilst he maintains a cool exterior, surely his own personal form and the slump of the side he's captaining is playing on the back of his mind. England made headlines in the warm up games for the wrong reasons and when Strauss was given out LBW in England's disastrous first innings yesterday, he had a confrontation with the umpires because Sri Lanka decided to wait for the leg bye signal before reviewing. 
There doesn't seem to be any completely clear cut choices banging at the door (although they've all got to start somewhere) in county cricket and Strauss is still 11th on the list of all time English run scorers. But with a resurgent West Indies side over in May/June and the South Africans and their hostile pace attack coming, Strauss will once again be facing a test of his batting and a test of his captaincy skills.

Strauss is one of my favourite players which is what makes watching him at the moment feel like I'm once again watching the slow decline of a beloved childhood pet. And that's why I really hope that Strauss regains some remnant his Test batting form and doesn't finish off his reign as captaincy like Michael Vaughan. Because Strauss can be a joy to watch when he's deciding to not play horrible sweep shots or poorly executing attempts to hit over the top off the spinners. He may not be involved in the run chase tomorrow, but eyes will be on him in Colombo and there's no doubt that he will want to perform. Whether he will is the question.

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