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Andrew Strauss is arguably the most successful England captain of the modern era. He shares with Mike Brearley the distinction of having beaten Australia at home and away, and this year he became the first captain to take England to the top of the official world Test rankings. Yet, unlike Brearley, Strauss is not talked about with hushed awe. His achievements are acknowledged but not mythologised, and when we meet for lunch at a busy pub in the Chilterns, no one pesters him for an autograph. You sense that not becoming a superstar is one of Strauss’s ambitions and, as usual, he has got what he wanted.
Strauss has never quite joined cricket’s aristocracy. Even this summer, as England closed in on the No. 1 ranking, Sir Ian Botham opted for prolonged silence in the commentary box when Strauss bowled the part-timer Jonathan Trott at Sachin Tendulkar, as though it was too stupid even to merit analysis. Does Strauss care? ‘I didn’t know about that episode, but thanks for telling me!’ he laughs. ‘I really don’t listen. I don’t like being part of the pat-your-back brigade of “Weren’t you brilliant and wasn’t I brilliant and don’t we know more than anyone else?” I’m quite happy to keep my distance from the past players.’
Perhaps cricket’s big egos haven’t quite caught up with Strauss’s achievements. He is the master of the late run. Owais Shah was a fixture in the Middlesex team when he was 17; Strauss only became an automatic pick in his early 20s. He was the last of his year group to be picked by England, aged 27, but he has made a bigger contribution than more heralded contemporaries. The trajectory of his captaincy followed a similar path: his peers Vaughan, Flintoff and Pietersen were all given the nod before he was allowed a proper go.
Four years ago, few predicted his status today. I remind Strauss of a bleak week in Chelmsford in September 2007 when Middlesex were playing Essex. He’d been dropped by England, was struggling for Middlesex. Did he ever doubt himself? ‘Definitely, we all have those doubts. When I was recalled for the 2007/8 New Zealand tour, I still didn’t feel in great form. But when it comes to the clutch, you let all those fears go, and say: “This might be my last Test. If it is, I’m not going to worry about anything, I’m just going to watch the ball.” I got a hundred in the third Test, and suddenly everything was looking up again.’ The last chance saloon brought out the best in him. I’ve heard advisers say similar things about the Prime Minister: that he is at his best when he most needs a good performance.
Now, as captain, Strauss has taken England to unprecedented heights. ‘The correlation between stable, confident leadership and good performance is there for everyone to see. When Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher were at their best, we played good cricket. When Vaughan got injured and Fletcher became overwhelmed by the media, the performances drifted off. The clearer and more stable the leadership, the more players have a common goal, and the more likely they are to play for the team rather than themselves.’
How do you create that environment? ‘If you want people to put the team first, you’ve got to give them a say in it, you can’t just stand there and bark orders.’ Before last winter’s
Ashes tour, Strauss held dinners, three or four players at a time, to discuss plans. ‘We wanted the players to come up with ideas. There is this stereotype of the captain who stands up and beats his chest and has these brilliant ideas and everyone says, “Wow, you’re amazing.” I don’t think it works that way.’
The stereotype of the alpha-male captain still exerts a strong grip. When England had to choose between Strauss and Flintoff to lead the ill-fated 2006/7 Ashes campaign, the former Australian captain Ian Chappell argued it was a no-brainer. Flintoff bowled the thunderbolts, Flintoff smashed the huge sixes, Flintoff was the big character. And that view prevailed: Flintoff was named captain.
‘People think the guy who is overtly the biggest character in the dressing room has the spectator | 22 October 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk got to be captain. But that’s not necessarily the case. Mike Brearley wrote that many people want to be captain for the wrong reasons. They want the glory, to stand out from everyone else. I agree with that. The more you see someone pushing hard to be captain, the more worried I’d be.’ It’s not a dig at Flintoff — Strauss is quick to point out that a change of captain would have made no difference on that tour — but it is an attack on sport’s macho groupthink.
‘Martin O’Neill once said, “It’s not about making the right decisions, it’s about making the decisions right.” You make decisions based on incomplete knowledge, and a lot of the time they’re going to be wrong. You can agonise all you like. But if you just commit, and drag people with you, there’s a good chance of it coming off.’
If the decisions aren’t always critical, then the political gift of consensus-building must be central. ‘Yes, it’s paramount.’ And is Strauss interested in politics? ‘I’m fascinated by politics. But I’m not that enthralled by any of the parties. They’ve got bogged down. None is clear enough about what it is they stand for. I get the impression everyone is trying to occupy this centre ground, which becomes a mishmash… Cameron generally impresses me. But at the same time, you get the feeling that when there is any opposition to a policy they just backtrack.’
In sport, it is obvious what the goal is: to win. But what is the equivalent of winning in politics? ‘Everyone would see that differently. Party strategists would say gaining and keeping power. Individual MPs would say one particular policy. It’s a good question. What would David Cameron say? Would he say making the country a better place? If he said it, would he mean it?’
It is interesting to hear Strauss assess the Prime Minister, two men who leapfrogged flashier rivals. Strauss also follows President Obama closely. ‘I became captain of England when he took office. I’ve watched him get almost overwhelmed by expectations. Obviously, it’s so hard to live up to.’
The thought strikes me: Strauss is the inverse Obama. Instead of offering soaring rhetoric, he is always anticipating criticisms to come, a master of lowering expectations. Is that deliberate? ‘It would be good advice: don’t promise too much, but overachieve. But it’s not a conscious thing, I don’t think.’ Not necessarily conscious, but very effective.
Perhaps one reason why cricket underestimates Strauss is that he has never seemed obsessed with the game. When I played with Strauss at Middlesex, I always sensed that the craft of batting was slightly incidental, a vehicle for his competitiveness. In truth, I think he is more interested in leadership. Just as well, really: his years as a batsman are numbered; as a leader, they may only be beginning.
Ed Smith is a former captain of Middlesex and a writer for the Times.