The End of an Era?Martin Chandler |
I was just eight years old when Australia visited England for the 1968 Ashes, and although I watched most of the series only two things stand out in my memory. The more vivid of those is the remarkable transformation of Kennington Oval on the final afternoon of the final Test from what was almost a lake, to a cricket ground where Derek Underwood could bowl England to a victory that had seemed impossible just a few hours before. My other memory came from an earlier match, the third at Edgbaston, as England skipper Colin Cowdrey became the first man ever to play in one hundred Test matches and, entirely fittingly in my eyes, he marked the occasion with a century, the twenty first of his Test career.
Andrew Strauss has just become the ninth man to achieve that particular century for England, and it brought back memories of Cowdrey, who died in 2000, at the relatively early age of 67, and who is, it seems to me, becoming something of a forgotten figure in the game.
Why did Strauss remind me of Cowdrey? I suspect that the main reason is that both are thoroughly honourable, decent and likeable characters. Strauss I have never met, but I have heard him speak often enough, and unlike some of his other successors as England captain, I doubt that Cowdrey would ever have raised an eyebrow at a word he has said. I did have the pleasure of briefly meeting Sir Colin once (He was at that time still a couple of years away from his elevation to the peerage). I had played a minor role in arranging a function at which he had agreed to speak, and was present when he arrived. As he was greeted by the evening’s Master of Ceremonies his first words were; Sorry to trouble you old chap, but could someone arrange a cup of tea for my driver, he’s been stuck in the car for almost five hours
In fact Cowdrey was a true gentleman throughout the evening, and excellent company. He was happy to fall into conversation with anyone, about anything, but despite the at times somewhat ribald atmosphere that you get at such all male cricketing functions, he never once swore nor, perhaps more meaningfully, did he reproach or seem troubled by the many who did. I have since read that in 1970/71, having been passed over in favour of Raymond Illingworth for the England captaincy, that vice-captain Cowdrey went into what is best described as a sulk throughout the victorious campaign that regained the Ashes in Australia for the first time since Douglas Jardine’s side had done so in 1932/33, but that is the only criticism of his personality that I have seen.
Is such resentment at missing out on the captaincy something else that Strauss and Cowdrey shared? Certainly Strauss had some cause to be aggrieved. It is true that his first experience of the job was a 5-0 mauling by Sri Lanka in 2006, but then ODI’s were never his best format, and his first taste of the captaincy of the Test side, later that same summer, was the highly creditable success over a strong Pakistan side. His measured and dignified approach to the controversy engendered by the forfeiture of the Oval Test that summer was another moment in his career where his approach was reminiscent of Cowdrey.
Strauss would not have been human had he not then been disappointed to be overlooked, first in favour of Andrew Flintoff for that winter’s baggygreenwash, and subsequently by Kevin Pietersen, before the very public spat between Pietersen and then coach Peter Moores left the door wide open for him. His form in Australia under Flintoff was certainly poor, as he averaged only 24 with just one half century, but on the other hand Pietersen can have had no complaints about Strauss’ batting during his brief reign. Although I have heard suggestions to the contrary I rather doubt that Strauss was much troubled by Flintoff’s appointment. The Lancastrian had, after all, been the incumbent in the Tests against Sri Lanka, and was the senior man. As to his batting form Strauss was, to my certain recollection, the recipient of two poor decisions, and it was not as if the rest of the England batting put him to shame. The Pietersen scenario was different, as Strauss was the more experienced man, but twin hundreds in KP’s first Test as skipper said all that needed to be said of the support he received from Strauss.
It took just eight years for Strauss to reach his century of Tests. For Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge it was more than fourteen. Both had 21 centuries at the end of their 100th Test, and both were aged 35, but there were differences too. For Cowdrey there were to be 14 more Tests, and he was 42 before, after battling it out with Denis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1974/75, he finally left the Test arena. Strauss has called time on his involvement with the professional game on all levels straight away. Their overall career statistics are similar, Strauss averaging fractionally under 41 and Cowdrey 44. But for Strauss there was a superb start followed by a steady decline, whereas for Cowdrey his early progress was hesitant, before he grew into his role. The 1974/75 trip was one too many for him, but if age and lack of real fitness had dulled his effectiveness, his sound technique and bravery meant that he by no means disgraced himself in a series that was, in its way, even more depressing for Englishmen than 2006/07.
Strauss and Cowdrey were both born overseas, in South Africa and India respectively, though one would never guess from their voices. Both were amongst the finest slip fielders of their respective eras, and both were successful England captains although, with due respect to his Lordship, their abilities in that capacity were rather different. Cowdrey was sound enough but overly defensive, and seemed somewhat indecisive. His 27 Tests as captain brought just 8 wins, with 4 defeats and as many as 15 draws. Strauss captained England many more times, 50 in all, and while his win to defeat ratio is similar, 24 as against 11, the overall impression he leaves is that of being one of England’s finest, and no one can take away from him the fact that he led England to back to back Ashes victories, and then took them to the top of the Test rankings in the most emphatic way possible as India were despatched 4-0 last summer.
There has been much speculation as to the extent to which the current furore surrounding Kevin Pietersen has influenced the timing of Strauss’ decision. He himself has denied that it played a part, and I believe we should accept his word on that. For me the bare statistics, for once, tell the whole truth. Fifty Tests as captain, including four of the highest profile series there have been in recent times, in less than four years is a mighty burden to bear. Couple to that the fact that his batting has not been all he would wish, and at 35 was clearly not going to get any better, and it is easy to see why the thought of leading England into consecutive Ashes series next year is not quite as appealing as it may at first glance appear to be. His departure will therefore just leave Ian Bell, always assuming the rift with Pietersen is permanent, as the man in pole position to become the first Englishman to appear in five victorious Ashes series*.
So what will become of Andrew Strauss? For a man with his integrity and cricketing brain I have little doubt that he will not have to dust off the accountancy qualifications that he gained in his youth. Doubtless if he wants it a spot could open up in the Sky commentary team, but perhaps he is destined for greater things. I am sure that at some point, as with his illustrious predecessor, a knighthood will come his way and perhaps also in due course he will become Baron Strauss of Radley – I won’t claim any great fondness or respect for the way in which the honours system currently works, but whatever shortcomings it has, and there are several, such an honouring of a great England captain would certainly find favour with me.
What will be my abiding memory of Andrew Strauss? Like many others it will in the main be the famous images of the Ashes winning captain holding aloft that replica of the tiny urn, twice, together with that iconic photograph that Patrick Eagar took of him airborne, plucking out of the air Adam Gilchrist’s very rapid edge from the bowling of Andrew Flintoff, perhaps the defining moment of the magical summer of 2005. In some ways it could be said to be unfortunate that a memorable batting performance is not at the top of the list, but I doubt Strauss will mind too much. If called upon to nominate his finest hour with the bat I would, unusually for me, be inclined to stray into ODI territory, and that memorable 158 in the 2011 World Cup that brought a tie, and so nearly a remarkable victory against India, the hosts.
What does seem certain is that we will not see Andrew Strauss on England duty again, and his erstwhile opening partner Alistair Cook is now charged with the task of eclipsing his record. I think we can be confident that Strauss will give him any advice and support that he needs, and will be as happy as every other Englishman if Cook goes on to improve on the impressive record that is his legacy.
*My apologies to Sir Ian Botham and friends, but I simply cannot bring myself to view the series of matches between teams described as England and Australia that took place in 1978/79 as an Ashes contest.