How do you pay suitable tribute to Andrew Strauss?
The facts speak for themselves. A double Ashes winning captain, once down under. 50 games as test captain, with 24 victories and a personal average of just over 40. A stint, albeit a brief one, as the leader of the number one test team in the world. As a man, all the usual adjectives will be rolled out in force. A level header leader; a class act; a courteous, determined player who gave his all for England. But somehow, these don't seem to do Strauss the justice he deserves.
Old Trafford, 2005. Brett Lee was bowling at his fastest and most hostile. Strauss had taken one to the head in the first innings, and was suitably dismissed three balls later. In the second innings, the same happened again. Strauss's bloody ear was patched up, Lee went back to his mark and sent another one straight into Strauss's body. He played it safely away. No panic, no wild slashing - just a calm man playing his natural game. He went on to make 106, with the moment summed up perfectly as Strauss removed his helmet to reveal a bloodied ear, haphazardly bandaged, and a smile stretching across his face.
A lesser batsman would have backed away after the blow. But Strauss took the attack to the Australians. It was to his credit the way he handled himself throughout his century. In the first innings, he was subdued, and looked lost against Lee. The second time around, Strauss was confident; self-assured. When Strauss's confidence was up, he was one of the most pleasing batsmen to watch. Against Australia in particular, he seemed to prosper. Maybe Strauss took the threat of the old enemy more seriously than any other.
His performance at Lords in 2009 set up England's first victory against Australia at the ground in 75 years. He picked off the bowlers; dislocating Hauritz's finger, slashing an erratic Johnson to all parts of the ground, greeting Siddle's short aggression with hooks and pulls and carefully playing Hilfenhaus, at that point the biggest threat in the attack, out of the game. Again in 2010, when England were under pressure in the first game at Brisbane, and Strauss was on a pair, he milked the attack for all they were worth, cover driving Australia out of the game and showing the fighting spirit that ultimately would allow England an Ashes victory down under.
Not all Strauss's centuries were easy to watch. His comeback in 2008 against New Zealand, an innings that saved his career, was a prime example of his determination, just as his century against the West Indies was earlier this year. Neither of these were shining examples of the delicacy Strauss possessed as a batsmen. They were gritty, stubborn affairs, that saw chances go begging but a focused batsman pushing onwards, and pushing himself back into form.
Strauss will not be remembered as an innovator. He could be cautious to the point of overkill. But his steady nature did wonders for an England on the brink of implosion in 2009. He was the man in the team that a mother would take a shine to; well dressed, polite, rational and an all round good guy. But Strauss, the player, was so much more than that. He was gracious in defeat, yet aware enough to acknowledge failings, both on a personal level and as a collective. In victory, he was courteous, and the respect which the team held him in shone through.
The last few weeks will have played their part, just as failures in the sub-continent and a slide in form will have contributed to Strauss's decision to retire. He will leave a hole in the team, not just at the top of the order but as a figure in the dressing room who cultivated calm and dignity. He can leave, however, on his own terms, with his head held high; a suitable manner for a man of such character.