Time’s a great healer.” “I’m not in the business of falling out with people.” Andrew Strauss is, during his talk at the Oxford Union, very keen to explain that he’s willing to let bygones be bygones in regard to Kevin Pietersen. In a way this flies in the face of some of the things Strauss tells me during our short interview earlier in the evening. Then, he’s subtle but staunch in disagreeing with Pietersen’s rather brutal indictment of the England team’s “bullying culture”, although on that front it’s worth pointing out that Pietersen is hardly the first player to criticise the team spirit of an England cricket team over the last decade or so.
However, it seems reductive to focus on ‘KP’ during my chat with Strauss. During their international careers — which started at roughly the same time in the period before the 2005 Ashes — Pietersen’s flamboyant style often distracted from the solid, sometimes unspectacular, but more often than not top-drawer cricket and captaincy from Strauss, and I’d like to prevent that happening in print, too.
“There were times where players said and did things they’d regret.”
In the past three Ashes series to have taken place in Australia (in 2006-07, 2010-11, and 2013-14), England have won one series in impressive fashion and been whitewashed twice rather more ignominiously. It would be simplistic to give the fact that Andrew Strauss wasn’t captain as a reason for the two calamitous series, but to look closer at the manner in which Strauss’ successful side took the fight to an Australia side unused to being challenged on home turf is revealing. Strauss seemed to balance the egos and the strains of a long tour in a way that both Andrew Flintoff before him and Alastair Cook after him failed to do. Now of course, these successes seem distant.
A couple of years on from his retirement, the struggles of Cook, Pietersen et al make Strauss’ diplomacy and calm style a nostalgic memory. At the time though, the retirement felt abrupt to many. No doubt the Kevin Pietersen scandal of that series — yes, for those who have been paying attention this is a very different scandal to either the one which got Pietersen sacked as captain in favour of Strauss or the one which ended his England career after this year’s Ashes — played a role.
When I broach the subject of the timing of his exit though, Strauss avoids the elephant in the room. “I think most people felt I went a little bit too early. I mean everyone wants to go out exactly at the top and it’s very hard to manufacture that but what I didn’t want to do was go on beyond my sell-by date. I didn’t want people looking at me thinking, ‘Oh well he’s done a few good things for England but maybe he should retire now.’ So I always took the view that if I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I used to be and I wasn’t getting any better then that was probably the time to go.”
I ask about how he’s adjusted to life away from the crease. Has Strauss even been able to keep himself out of his pads? “I’ve played a fair amount of charity stuff since I retired but I had the philosophy that when I retired I’d be fine to play a game as long as there was absolutely no expectation of me doing well, because I’ve had enough of that over the years. As long as people realise it’s just for fun then that’s great. In some ways I do miss the game though: I miss the competitiveness and the batting side of things, but ultimately life moves on, I was ready to move on, and it was great to do different things.
”Obviously my main engagement at the mjnute is with Sky TV doing the commentary which I’ve really enjoyed. It’s a completely new challenge and not one that is easy to be honest. It takes a good while to get used to. Also, it’s obviously been great getting to know the likes of [Sir Ian] Botham and David Lloyd.” As though I might be unconvinced at his successful “moving on”, Strauss does then clarify that he’s been doing some non-cricket related things. “I’ve started a consultancy business called Mindflick which works on leadership and performance have really enjoyed having a lot more time to do things with both charity and family.”
As he mentions, Sky TV has given Strauss a home. Often those commentating on sport get a pretty bad name from those playing it — not least when you’re calling a certain Kevin Pietersen a “cunt” on air as Strauss did recently — so I wonder about how Strauss feels the dynamic between pundit and player works. As a player, he says the relationship is “pretty frosty”.He continues, “As Alastair Cook found out this summer, every decision you make as captain is analysed to the nth degree. You know people will have opinions about whether you did the right thing or the wrong thing. As a captain that can get pretty frustrating because you can’t keep everyone happy all of the time so needless to say you have times when you feel pretty frustrated with those who are criticizing you. But I think having stepped onto the other side of the fence you realize that often people are just finding a subject to talk about, it’s not really as serious as you think it is when you’re England captain.”
Strauss’ relationship with the coach who was elevated to the top job at the same time he took over that captaincy is frequently cited as one of the fundamental building blocks behind the run that led to England being crowned the world’s number one side. Strauss says, “I think it was [special]. I think we were both lucky that we started at the same time. We always had a very even relationship and we built something together. They were special times in my life working with Andy actually. It’s obviously never quite the same when you have a different leadership in place. Andy had obviously done a phenomenal job for six years, which is about the right time for a coach, so after the last Ashes was the right time for him to go.”
The suggestion of a “bullying culture” in Flower and Strauss’ England side was one of the hot topics to emerge from Pietersen’s recent book. Strauss feels this is misleading. “I’ve never seen a bullying culture. I don’t think that ever existed. There were times when, in the heat of the moment, players said and did things they’d regret, but then you’ve got to remember that it’s high pressure cricket and people are pushing themselves to the absolute limit. That’s going to happen in any walk of life, and when anyone did overstep the mark, they were quickly brought back into line, so I just don’t think that was the case.”
“When one of English cricket’s greatest players is struggling, it’s not really on.”
Changing the subject, I contend that cricket has a class problem. The make-up of the English cricket team has always had a public school feel about it. Strauss feels my point has a grassroots cause.
“It is a bit of an issue. I think 90% of state primary schools play no cricket whatsoever, so there’s a danger of cricket becoming increasingly more elitist. It’s difficult because is there time in the curriculum for sports in a lot of these state schools? Do they have the facilities? Often they don’t. But I would like to think that cricket is a national sport, and for it to be a national sport we need as many people playing as possible. There are some great initiatives out there, like Chance to Shine, and there’s a lot of work being done to get more sport played in schools. The clubs have a big role to play: I don’t want cricket to be thought of as a game for the privileged.
Another pressing issue in the cricket world is scheduling. Often international players can be playing for 300 days a year, and the stresses associating with touring have shown themselves dangerous on a number of recent occasions. On touring, Strauss recalls, “It’s incredibly difficult, and gets more difficult the longer you go, especially when you have kids. It’s has a gradual wearing effect on you, and if you’re out of form it’s particularly tough. I think all of us have been through times when we were struggling to hold it together, but for some people in particular it’s just been too much. The people in charge of scheduling have got to think about that.” He continues by making reference to the mental health struggles of two of the best English batsmen of recent times, “They’ve got to think about the right times to rest players because it’s horrible to see the Jonathan Trott situation or the Marcus Trescothick situation. I mean when one English cricket’s greatest players is really struggling, it’s not really on.”
(Statistics from ESPNCricinfo.)
As we come to the end of our time, talk turns to the immediate future of English cricket, there’s a World Cup coming up and England are notoriously poor in One-Day International tournaments. I put it to Strauss that this might be their best chance in a while. He is cautious but positive. “I think the fact the World Cup’s in Australia is a big thing, that’s to England’s advantage. They’re not very confident at the minute, so they need to win a lot of games between now and the World Cup if they’re going to have a decent chance.”
On that note Strauss is chivvied towards his speech, and I’m left sure that English sport has another ex-pro who’d likely be more useful providing sage advice and criticism within the game than from a TV studio