Everyone has their personal memories of famous cricketers.
For this correspondent, a face-to-face interview in late 2001, as he embarked on the first tour by an England academy XI, was the first contact with Andrew Strauss. He immediately came across as an engaging, intelligent 24-year-old able to reminisce about playing club cricket with Brett Lee for Sydney’s Mosman club.
In 2002 and 2003, I remember a confident but composed left-hander with a keen eye for a cover-drive and a pull, frequently piling up big opening partnerships for Middlesex alongside Sven Koenig, a South African who left the world of cricket long ago to become a banker in South Africa.
In 2004, the same year he made a surprise Test debut following an eve-of-Test injury to Michael Vaughan, Strauss hit a ferocious square cut that flew about a foot wide of my three-month-old son crawling nonchalantly on a picnic blanket a few yards beyond the boundary rope. (Sadly, they don’t play Twenty20 matches at Southgate any more).
In 2005, his astonishing catch to get rid of Adam Gilchrist at Trent Bridge proved to be one of the most eye-catching moments of that summer’s astonishing Ashes contest.
And so it went on, with the highlights unquestionably linked to Ashes success. In 2009, a BBC journalist asked the England captain if Australia had lost their “aura of invincibility”, and Strauss – by now well-versed in dead-batting any testing questions – instead seized on an opportunity. “It feels like you are playing against any other Test team,” he said, observing how a team recently shorn of players like Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist could not instil fear in other sides. It was a calculated and bold psychological move – and played its own part, however small, in helping England win not just that series against Australia, but the one that followed Down Under.
When India were whitewashed 12 months ago, Strauss had taken England as far as he could in Test cricket, to world number one status. Unfortunately, his batting was already in terminal decline – let down not so much by poor technique as poor shot selection.
He averaged 28.72 in 2011, and the poor form continued into the disastrous tour of the UAE, where Pakistan won the series 3-0, and the drawn series in Sri Lanka. Two centuries against West Indies hinted at past glories, but South Africa’s awesome bowling attack tore Strauss’s defence to shreds.
Irrespective of the whole Kevin Pietersen saga – which didn’t reflect particularly well on the captain, if truth be told – Strauss appeared to be approaching the end of the road. At one of the low points of the Pakistan series, he was criticised by Geoffrey Boycott as “not that great tactically” – a stinging slur for a cricket captain at any level.
But Strauss was an immense force for good in a 100-Test career that produced 21 Test centuries – tantalisingly one short of the English record jointly held by Wally Hammond, Boycott himself and Colin Cowdrey. The bond he formed with England coach Andy Flower was hugely positive. Together, they established a new benchmark of professionalism in which consensus was sought from individuals and quietly absorbed before the blueprint for continued Test success was meticulously plotted. By and large – almost without fail until the start of 2012 – the plan was executed well by players who were entrusted to play without fear and ride a bandwagon of success.
Having scaled the mountain and reached that coveted number one spot in Test cricket, England have found the oxygen at the top all too thin and have slid back down the slope perilously quickly, much like India had before them.
Things may be tough for a while. Alastair Cook, who has had some success as one-day captain, faces an altogether different task as Test captain where he must get under the skin of his team-mates, lift them after a flat day and restore their confidence. He will have a new partner to open the batting with, and a new player – possibly two – to bed into the middle order.
The Strauss era is over. It ended with a dramatic fall-out with Pietersen, but 10 years from now it won’t be remembered for that. Strauss successfully and unflinchingly continued the upward progression established by Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan before him. Cook has a tough act to follow.