James Lawton: Strauss needs to be a leader like Waugh
Three former England captains, David Gower, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, have now deplored here the decision of their successor Andrew Strauss to take a break from the tour of Bangladesh.
They have suggested it is something occupying the uneasy ground between self-indulgence and dereliction of duty.
This, some may say, is a harsh verdict. The agreeable Strauss has, after all, had a hard year and one that in many ways has been an outstanding success.
He picked his way impressively through the chaos that followed Kevin Pietersen's loss of the captaincy and numbing series defeat in the Caribbean inflicted by a West Indian team just one place off the bottom of the world rankings.
He found a way to win the Ashes and even if Sunday's defeat in the cavern of the Wanderers ground was nothing less than an evisceration, tying 1-1 with world number two rated South Africa is not exactly a catastrophe — at least if you weren't around these last few days to see the team pretty much fall apart at the seams.
However, the old skippers are of course right.
Hard year is a relative term when you look around the world and see how many lives, for one reason or another, have been traumatised over the last twelve months. Playing cricket, even quite a lot of it, is not exactly to travel the road of Calvary.
Strauss should be in Bangladesh leading the team, not the tyro Alastair Cook who until quite recently was fighting for his own place in the team. The point is that they are, suddenly, a team riddled with major problems.
Their most talented player, Kevin Pietersen is in free fall. Jonathan Trott is a nervy, fidgeting repository of all kinds of disturbing tension. Stuart Broad isn't beginning to match in performance the arrogance of his manner and the entire seam attack has come up seriously short here. So has the captain's batting, such a source of strength against Ricky Ponting's Australians. Some of the charitably inclined critics have suggested that Strauss may profitably use at least some of the free time allowed by the Bangladesh break to concentrate on his own game. But this isn't good enough.
When Atherton suffered a slide in his own performance, which was particularly apparent on a tour of New Zealand, he worked relentlessly in the nets and in Auckland would have made a century but for a freakishly brilliant catch after he reached the nineties. Managing your game is not separate from the cares of captaincy. It is part of an admittedly big challenge and it is what in this case makes the concerns of the critical triumvirate of ex-skippers all the more relevant.
There is another perspective. It is supplied by the performance of one of the greatest of all Test captains, Australia's Steve Waugh, back in the Ashes of 2001. The Aussies had already mopped up the series 3-0 when Waugh sustained a serious knee injury at Trent Bridge. He missed the next Test at Headingley, which England won, improbably. Interestingly, Waugh spent most of that match not on the dressing room balcony but working at rehabilitation on the rugby league field at the back of the stand.
“When you're captain you have a responsibility to push a little harder,” he told me as sweat ran from his brow after one gruelling and painful session.
He returned to the team for the fifth Test at the Oval, scored an undefeated 157, his face sometimes clenched in pain, in the one knock Australia required to win by an innings and 25 runs.
Ironically, as it would turn out, before arriving in England Waugh took his team on a visit to the First World War battlefields of Gallipoli which claimed so many Australian lives. The gesture provoked a degree of derision in the rest of the cricket world but Waugh insisted it was good for the team's sense of commitment.
Later he said: “True bonding experiences stand the test of time and become part of you and most certainly visiting Gallipoli together on our way to England had a profound effect on most the squad.”
Eight years later Strauss took his players to the old killing ground of Ypres which took so many English lives, an initiative which was also said to have helped team morale, even though Freddie Flintoff happened to miss the bus.
Now, maybe it is the right time for Strauss to reflect upon the value of something which was rather more than central to the strategy that made Waugh such a legendary Test captain. It was his habit of leading from the front.