Unless England come up with another unlikely and unforeseen method of self-sabotage, Andrew Strauss will lead the test team in the West Indies this winter, in the return series in the spring and in the Ashes after that. His job will be the small matter of reuniting a divided dressing room, rehabilitating his key player and leading a head coach-less team after the damage wrought by Hurricane Kev.
Nobody can envy the situation in which Strauss finds himself. He has taken over a ship which not only lacks a rudder but is taking on water at a rapid rate and, if it has any sails, certainly has no wind in them. Good luck with that. The Ashes begins in precisely 6 months. Repair work must begin immediately.
Strauss has been presented by many as a safe pair of hands but England need much more than that. He is the only option but he is a more than capable one. He is intelligent, diplomatic, has plenty of captaincy experience and wants the job more than anything. He also feels he has a point to prove after being overlooked in favour of Flintoff in 2006.
The ECB cannot just hope that by bringing in someone conciliatory everything else will go away. England need one of sport’s famous ‘clear-the-air’ meetings with everybody under no illusions that what goes on in the meeting room stays in there and that afterwards what’s done is done and everyone moves on. After the manoeuvrings before England’s return to India after the Mumbai bombings it seems the team has spent more time in meeting rooms than in the nets of late.
Many media pundits have cleverly decided that this was the moment to make it public that Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen do not really like each other. What a helpful contribution in such difficult times. Uniting these two however, or at least brokering some form of peace, will be Strauss’s most important task. They are two of the three former captains of whom he will be in charge and, along with Paul Collingwood, make up England’s nucleus of senior players. Strauss, the rest of the team and England cricket need their contribution. One hopes that they can act like adults and move forward for the greater good.
Tension between Pietersen and Flintoff was pretty easy to discern once Steve Harmison had spoken out. Harmison is a lost soul without Flintoff holding his hand. I found it rather inappropriate and ironic that it was Harmison who spoke out about the need for unity (a statement of the bleeding obvious) given his performances for England over the past 4 years or so. Often it seems that the biggest division in the England team is between the other 10 players who look like they really want to be there, and Harmison who doesn’t.
And this is a further concern for Strauss. How will the less strong-willed players, of whom we appear to have plenty, react? It is a chance for Alastair Cook to step up and become a worthy lieutenant for the skipper and become heir apparent. Prior can also establish himself as a key team member. In a bowling attack which lacks leaders, it would be great to see someone step forward in the manner of Dale Steyn this year and take on the role of spearhead of the attack. There is something of an ‘after you’ mentality for that role at the moment. Ian Bell meanwhile is probably sitting in the corner with his hands in his ears, eyes screwed up and a blanket over his head like a child upset by rowing parents. Owais Shah has leadership experience and would be a welcome addition at number 3 for more than just his runs.
Regarding Pietersen, I am glad the ECB called his bluff. If they had let him get away with speaking out as he did and gave him his way by removing Moores, it would have been much harder to deal with the next time he was not happy with something and the fall out would have been even greater. As it is, the ECB have stood strong and announced to everyone that they will not stand for this sort of nonsense. They have been caught in the crossfire and have shown uncharacteristic decisiveness.
I also think it smells of hindsight to say that the ECB’s judgement in appointing Pietersen in the first place was awry. Some people said it would end in tears but nobody thought that it would happen this quickly. And if it had done a year down the line with the Ashes safely in the bag then there would not have been too many complaints. Pietersen seemed to be making a decent fist of the job although perhaps a bit of revisionism is required now we know what some in the dressing room thought of him.
So now it’s over to Strauss. Personally, I think he is capable of doing a tremendous job as long as he is firm with all those around him. He is infinitely more to the taste of the establishment and I have never heard a derogatory word said about him by player or pundit, other than about his batting around 12 months ago. He finally appears to have got over being overlooked for the captaincy in 2006, a decision which triggered a run of 30 innings without a hundred and with only five 50s. Let’s hope he can pick up where he left off before that, and indeed in India last month.
In Ashes year, it is appropriate that it is an appointment of which Douglas Jardine would have approved, something we should probably point out to the Aussies at every available juncture, just to annoy them. And maybe, in 8 months time, with the urn reclaimed and safely under lock and key at Lords, and a man-of-the-series medal adorning Pietersen’s mantelpiece, we will look back at all this and laugh. Maybe.
By Stuart Peel