Tuesday May 20 marks the tenth anniversary of Andrew Strauss’ Test debut, the beginning of an international career in which he excelled as a batsman and took England to the very top of world cricket as captain and leader.
Asked to find a way out of the chaos of the sackings of Peter Moores as coach and Kevin Pietersen as captain at the start of 2009, Strauss’ full-time leadership began with a collapse at Sabina Park and ended, five years later, with the storm of Textgate.
But, in a partnership with Andy Flower that became known as the “Andocracy”, successive Ashes wins home and away and almost everything else in between mean Strauss is rightly regarded not only as one of the most successful England captains of all time but also one of the most influential.
Peter Hayter took him back to where and when it all began, asked him to relive the highs, the lows, the Ashes and the KPs and invited him to predict what the future may hold for England under his successor Alastair Cook and the reinstated Moores.
Peter Hayter: Ten years ago this week your Test career began against New Zealand at Lord’s. What do you recall of the experience?
Andrew Strauss: Extraordinary in all sorts of ways. This was going to be the biggest challenge of my life and I was by no means certain I was going to overcome it. I was lucky that because of Michael Vaughan’s late injury it was lastminute.com, I was in great form and playing on my home ground was in my favour.
But the preparation, the thoughts that go through your mind the night before, the tossing and turning in your bed… wondering. It is one of those watershed moments where your life could go in two completely different directions. Yet from the time I got to the ground I quickly settled into thinking this doesn’t feel that different, so when my turn did finally come to bat I thought listen, this is a step into the unknown but I’m not overawed, in fact its getting my juices flowing.
Prior to facing my first ball from Chris Martin there was a lovely realisation that I was going to be ok, mentally… “I’m not a rabbit in the headlights”.
PH: And putting on 190 with Marcus Trescothick, then scoring a century in your first Test innings. What was all the fuss about?
AS: Bizarrely it was one of the easier hundreds I’ve ever scored – until I got to 90. I played the way I would normally for Middlesex and before I knew it I was on 80 or 90. Then it suddenly dawned on me –holy sh*t, I’m on the verge of something pretty special here.I started to feel petrified.
On 91 I hit a ball off my inside edge which flicked the bail and it stayed on, then I was dropped in the gully on 95. But Marcus kept me grounded when I was getting over excited and then, when that ball went through the covers off Chris Martin, it felt, in one moment, like a lifetime’s work had all been worthwhile.
PH: A little over a year later you were taking part in one of the greatest Test series, the 2005 Ashes, finishing it off with your brilliant 100 at the Oval.
AS: That was probably the only time in my career when I felt a tiny bit like a rock star! The whole of the Oval giving me a standing ovation, it really felt like Wow!
PH: And then came Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street and the hangover…
AS: I think we all got carried away with that kind of adulation. We all walked a little too tall and I was no different. But what happened next was a good lesson to us all that winning an Ashes series isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.
By the time the next Ashes came along in 06-07, shambles isn’t quite the right way to describe it, but we were clutching quite badly from the start and it was brutally difficult from then on. Steve Waugh likes to talk about mental disintegration. That’s exactly what happened to us.
PH: And that was the start of a dark period for you which might have culminated in the end of your career. What was going on?
AS: I was beginning to get a bit negative about stuff. The euphoria about playing for England had worn off and you realise it is a relentless occupation and you’ve got to keep succeeding. It hit rock bottom when I was dropped for the tour to Sri Lanka. That really hurt me. It was humiliating.
You can go one of two ways; either say I’ve given it my best shot and it’s time to move on or think I don’t want it to finish like this,I’m going to fight.When we got to Napier for that final Test against New Zealand it was the last chance saloon for me and then, for the first time in 18 months I stopped fighting myself in the middle.
I decided all I’m going to do is try and watch every ball as hard as I can. It was a huge change of mindset without really understanding why it happened. I look back on that (he made 177) as the innings I’m most proud of. It’s easy to score runs when you are in great nick and bossing the cricket pitch. It’s different when your career’s on the line and all sorts of budgies are flying round your brain.
PH: You had your first stab as captain against Pakistan in 2006. But you got the job full-time for the tour to West Indies in 2009 after the sackings of Peter Moores as coach and Kevin Pietersen. Bearing in mind the chaos of all that did you consider not taking it?
AS: No. I very much felt this was my time. By this stage, I had a real idea of how I’d like to captain the side and get the best out of the players.
PH: Your captaincy, and the “Andocracy” with Andy Flower started unpromisingly with that collapse and defeat in the opening Test in Jamaica. From then on, with Ashes wins home (that summer) and away (2010-11) and getting to No1 in Test cricket your record was outstanding. How did you change things?
AS: There were three main strands to my philosophy. First, we had to let the players think for themselves. It was ridiculous the way things were, with all the coaches and back room staff, and too easy for players to have a pupil-teacher relationship. So we gave them far more freedom to prepare how they wanted, using coaches more as consultants, but with the freedom came accountability for performance as well.
Next, the team had to come first. That can only happen if players believe they are part of something bigger than themselves. Finally we had to address our relationship with the media where I felt we were far too sensitive about what people were saying about us rather than concentrating on what we had to do.
PH: Winning in Australia in 2010-11 must have been the pinnacle.
AS: Absolutely. You just have to look at what happened this winter to understand quite how hard it is to win out there. It just felt like this was our moment. We started poorly in the first Test in Brisbane but fought to leave there with something. We had our reward at the start of the Adelaide Test with Jonathan Trott’s run out of Simon Katich and the wickets of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke and apart from slipping up in Perth we just played out of our skins from then on.
My only regret was doing the sprinkler dance on the outfield when we clinched the series in Melbourne. I was being interviewed at the time so I caught up with the lads just as they started to do the sprinkler and I got involved without thinking but I quickly wished I hadn’t. I know it was a bit of fun with the Barmy Army but I just feel there is a way to win and a way to lose. The Aussies hated it.
PH: How disappointing was it for you that your captaincy ended as it did in 2012, with defeat against South Africa and the fallout with KP over “Textgate” ?
AS: I was pretty clear in my mind before the start of that summer that this would be it for me and the reason for that was deep down I just wasn’t motivated enough. It felt like I’d achieved everything I wanted to in the game. Maybe you can live with that as a player but as a captain you’ve no chance.
What happened with Kevin and the texts was unfortunate. It would have been a better story if I could have gone out with the team completely intact, beating South Africa and walking off into the sunset. Even after he was left out for the last Test and even though we lost, I still felt so proud of the team that, with all that background noise they still got stuck in and played with so much spirit.
PH: Why did things get so out of hand with Kevin?
AS: For the vast majority of my time as captain he was brilliant. The fact that he got behind me and supported me like he did, I felt very fortunate to have him as engaged as he was over that period of time. I would argue that things went wrong in the last six months because his relationship with the ECB broke down over him wanting to play in the IPL and what they said he could and couldn’t do.
I think he got disillusioned with ECB and English cricket full stop and that crept into the dressing room. My big regret is that I didn’t deal with that more directly at an earlier juncture. Maybe wrongly I felt it was between him and ECB and I shouldn’t get involved. But I’m not going to make any excuses for KP. I think he did things he will regret. We all do that and I’ve forgiven him a long time ago for what went on and also accept we didn’t get everything right ourselves.
Life’s too short to harbour grudges. KP and I are fine and the game moves on.
PH: But to drop him from that last Test at Lord’s, with so much at stake looked like a huge call. Was it a tough decision to make?
AS: No. With the Text messages in the end it was all about trust and, at that stage, the trust between him and ECB and the rest of the team had broken down completely.
PH: And would KP have been “reintegrated” had you stayed on as captain?
AS: It would definitely have been harder for Kevin to come back in if I’d been there. The whole text message thing would always have been a pretty big barrier between the two of us. It was much easier for Andy Flower and Alastair Cook to say this is a fresh start.
PH: Kevin has gone now, as has Andy Flower. England have a new coach in Moores and Cook has a chance to rebuild as captain. What do you think about the re-appointment of Moores and what advice would you give Cooky now?
AS: I feel Ashley Giles was unlucky. For much of his time in charge he couldn’t pick the team he wanted because England’s priority was the Ashes. So I kind of feel that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Having said that, you’ve got to give Peter a lot of credit for the way he has used what happened first time as a learning experience.
There has been a seismic change and England cricket supporters should be excited by the prospect. With some new players coming through I look at Alastair and I’m quite envious in that he has great opportunity to shape a new side.
All I would say to him is that he really has to go with what he believes is right for the side. You can’t worry about how people view you, you have no control over that, so whatever your gut feeling is, go with that and commit to it 100 per cent. If you do that people will follow you.