Impressive Strauss takes a final bow

Andrew Strauss and his direct, look you in the eye approach to batting and life

First impressions count.  Whether it is the first time you see the house you are about to buy or the wine you are about to drink, it is all about that moment you clap eyes on the crimson creepers winding their way up the drainpipe or taste the subtle hint of raspberry – or melon or babbling brook for that matter – on the palate.

First impressions count for much and tend to override much of what comes later.

The same goes for cricketers, indeed all sportsmen. Everybody in fact. That first meeting sets the tone for how you perceive each other. Sometimes this is good, sometimes less so.

The first time I met Michael Atherton was not so good. He was captain of the England team touring South Africa in 1995/96. We met at Centurion before the first Test. His manner – rather like his batting – was defensive; aggressive defensive, taciturn to the point of being rude.

That meeting has stayed with me these years. In that series he played one of the most heroic defensive innings I have ever seen, making 185 not out at the Wanderers to defy a throat-ripping performance from Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock and earn England a draw. I admired his gutsy approach with the bat but I never warmed to him as a person.

And, even though he has transmuted into a top class cricket writer – I hesitate to use the word journalist – I still haven’t warmed to him. Friends of mine who remain on the circuit swear by his affability and bonhomie but for me he remains the charmless sod at Centurion.

Of course, on the reverse side of this I expect poor old Athers has absolutely no recollection of our meeting whatsoever. I was just another journalist doing another interview. In short, a pain in the arse.

In more recent days, another England cricket captain has been and gone by the name of Andrew Strauss. He resigned from the captaincy on Wednesday and also announced his immediate retirement from professional cricket.

I was sorry although not surprised to hear the news. His form has been middling over the last couple of years and having taken England to the top of the Test rankings, they have slumped badly this year. Defeat in UAE against an ordinary Pakistan side and a thrashing at home by South Africa spelt the end. There is no shame in that. He was a very fine player.

I only ever saw one of his many Test innings live but it was a gem – the first part of his 161 against Australia on the opening day of the Lords Test in 2009.

I was pleased for him that day, as I had been five years earlier when he had won his first cap against New Zealand and responded with a century. You see, first impressions count and Andrew Strauss made a fine first impression on me, as a cricketer and as a man.

In the late summer of 1998, I was sent down to Southampton by The Times to cover Hampshire’s County Championship match against Middlesex.

The press box at the old County Ground was pretty poky as were the dressing room facilities which may explain why John Buchanan, the Australian coach who was guiding Middlesex at the time, was parked in one corner of our box with his laptop, being very modern and clocking how each of his batsmen played each delivery.

There was a young lad in his team, a left-hander making his debut. AJ Strauss, who came in at three. A few tired wisecracks limped around the box:

“Can he waltz?”

“He’ll lead them a merry dance”

“I expect he will fiddle around for a bit…”

Celebrating the Ashes victory in 2009: Strauss won two Ashes series as captain and led England to number one in the world Test rankings

Buchanan quietly suggested we should watch this bloke bat. We did. And he did. He played beautifully that day, working the ball in his minimalist but effective way. Wisden says he made a “cultured” 83 before falling to Nixon McLean.

It was an impressive first impression. I think I wrote as much although without forecasting what a future lay in front of him.

Perhaps more impressive came after the day’s play. Having filed our copy it was usual for the press to stroll down to the bar and mix with the players for a couple of beers before everyone dispersed in their various directions.

I joined Buchanan who was talking to the young batsman who immediately shot out his hand.

“Andrew Strauss,” he said.

“How do you do, Barney Spender…”

Before I could finish my sentence, he butted in.

“…From The Times,” he said. “What a pleasure. I enjoy reading your reports.”

Flattery, I suppose, will get you everywhere – but I was impressed by his homework.

We chatted for ten or 15 minutes primarily about his innings, the pitch and his background – having seen he was born in Johannesburg, I was keen to establish whether he was a South African or English.

He had a direct, look you in the eye manner which was impressive in a young player. He assured me he was English. Shortly after, we shook hands and bade farewell.

I have never spoken to Strauss since. I expect he has forgotten that meeting a long time ago but it remains with me as the first impression of a man who has always, I feel, used that direct, look you in the eye approach whether it be opposition bowlers or recalcitrant teammates.

What impressed me most about his exit from the game was the way he took it on his shoulders. He made no attempt to blame anyone else and went out of his way to say his decision had nothing to do with the silly Kevin Pietersen TextGate idiocy which preceded the third and final Test against the Proteas.

He did what leaders do. He took responsibility.

I suspect that even though he is now lost to cricket, we have not heard the last of Andrew Strauss.

What did you make of Andrew Strauss’ decision to retire from all forms of cricket? Was he any good as a player? Let me know below.

By the way you can follow me on Twitter, should you so be inclined, on @bspender