London: When England’s cricket team won the men’s World Cup for the first time on Sunday, bedlam was not confined to the field at Lord’s. Up at the top of the media stand, a recently widowed 42-year-old was hugging the other Sky commentators and his two young sons.
Andrew Strauss was born in Johannesburg, and first picked up a bat in Melbourne, but since the age of seven he has become so English that he does a fine line in self-effacement. He had, so he said the morning after England’s triumph, “a small role to play”. Anyone else would say such a seismic victory could only have come from the house that Strauss built.
He stayed for a few celebratory drinks with England’s cricketers, then drove his boys, Sam and Luca, home to bed in their Hampshire village.
“It was such an incredibly emotional experience that it was probably a good thing I got to bed reasonably early, about midnight, but I didn’t sleep very well,” he said over the phone.
“When Jos Buttler collected the ball and completed that run-out, all of us in the Sky box were jumping up and hugging. That’s what sport can do to you: it gives you a lot of heartache and pain, and sometimes the ultimate rewards.”
It is not as if Strauss does not know what heartache and pain are in real life.
In November 2017, his wife, Ruth, was diagnosed with ALK-positive non-small-cell lung cancer, which afflicts non-smokers, and given one year to live.
Strauss had been the England captain until 2012, and became the director of England cricket in 2015. Faced with this crisis he took time out, then resigned, to make the most of the one year and 19 days they would have left together. Strauss had laid the foundations of England’s World Cup victory in most unpromising soil. Although England had reached the World Cup final thrice before, since the last time, in 1992, they had become an embarrassment in 50-over cricket.
They had not won a single knockout match at a world cup - until last week when they swept Australia aside in the semi-finals, and finally defeated New Zealand, after a tie in the final and again in the super over, on the strength of having scored more boundaries (fours and sixes) on the day.
He knew that to win they needed a different approach: his first two decisions were to dismiss Peter Moores, the head coach, and replace him with the outwardly calm and avuncular Australian Trevor Bayliss, and confirm Eoin Morgan as England’s captain in 50-over internationals.
To see the fulfilment of his vision of victory “was incredibly emotional for me, and I was exceptionally proud of Trevor and Eoin and the guys for having dug so deep to get there,” he says.
“Nobody gives you a world cup, and on home soil the pressures and expectations are even greater.”
As for that winning moment itself, he was “a wreck, a complete wreck. I couldn’t see for the life of me in the last 10 overs of the game, and even leading up to the ball when we won it, how we were going to win... getting over that line was utterly extraordinary.
“I’ve never seen a game like that in my life, and I’ve seen hundreds and thousands of games of cricket,” he says of “the most exceptional spectacle you are ever going to see on a cricket field. Sam and Luca were utterly riveted”.
Ruth, he thinks would have been, too. They had met in the run-up to Christmas of 1998, while he was playing club cricket in Sydney. They came across one another in a bar one evening, when the 26-year-old’s radiance overwhelmed him: he was quickly taken in by her confidence and refusal to conform.
Indeed, in those early days in Australia, when a demotion from the second XI to the third caused him to all but give up, Strauss, then 21, immersed himself in Ruth’s world to get away from his own. They watched films and went to the theatre, and sunbathed on golden beaches; when he moved back to Middlesex three months later, there was no question that she had to come, too.
“It was a very brave thing for her to up stumps and come to the UK for a 21-year-old cricketer,” Strauss said in an interview earlier this year. “If you think about the practical difficulties of having a relationship with somebody on the other side of the world, it defies all logic. We made it work because we wanted to.”
For the next two years, they travelled back to Australia during British winters so that Ruth could spend time with her family; in five years, they would go on to begin their own when Sam was born, followed by Luca three years later.
The lessons he learnt from his wife went far beyond fatherhood. “I look back on my career and I couldn’t have done what I did without Ruth,” he says. “She was incredibly supportive of me emotionally and, more than anything, she showed how to have balance in my life. So many times she told me I was not a cricketer, but a man who plays cricket.”
By the time Strauss first entered an England dressing room in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2003, that influence had already begun to shape him. His exceptional gift was apparent - not so much for batting, although Strauss had scored more Test centuries for England than any other player by the time he retired in 2012. But it was clear to his teammates that he had “a bit about him”, as cricketers say; a natural authority, his gift turning out to be the ability to make the most of his resources, along with his love of a challenge.
Newcomers then were tested out with practical jokes; left to contend with strong characters and egos to match. But he would go on to move things in a new direction, insisting on good manners. While never confrontational by nature, underneath the emollient exterior he has an unbreakable firmness of resolve.
Whenever he was faced with a problem, he would go away, think and talk it through, come back with a plan, and win. Such were his leadership skills he became one of just three England captains to win an Ashes series home and away against Australia. I first met him on that same tour, and found myself intrigued by his natural authority - if he said something, you just did it.
And while ghosting ‘Testing Times,’ his autobiography, in 2009, I spent time with the pair together: they made the most wonderful couple - he the best of Englishmen, and she the best of Australian women. Ruth had a vitality for life, and a unique gift in getting on with anybody, which made her death at the age of 46 all the more tragic.
Strauss played in two World Cups, in 2007 and 2011, when England again did not qualify for the later stages. “Both were deeply depressing events as we knew deep down we weren’t good enough,” he says. “But the real nadir for me was the 2015 World Cup when I just got angry. I was angry, I was embarrassed, I was deeply disappointed, and one thing I was determined to do as the director was to make sure that we could look each other in the eye after this World Cup - whoever won it - and say we had done everything we could.
“It was a no-brainer to keep Eoin as captain. What I didn’t know was what an incredible leader he would turn out to be, connecting with the players on a we’re-all-mates level but keeping a distance as the leader, composed and empathetic and supportive.”
The house that Strauss built is, as of Sunday, a glorious national monument. In his own, he lives with his boys, now 11 and 13. Since Ruth’s death, three days after Christmas last year, surrounded by family in Australia, they have done their best to find a new normal.
“Grief is a bit of a journey, and it is evolving all the time but I am very functional,” he said in March, adding that: “I don’t think this is something you can get over. Full stop.”
His main coping mechanism is being channelled into making “the world a better place, to build something good from going through something terrible”.
For him, this involves removing the taboo in discussing death, which he and Ruth did in the months prior to hers, and setting up the Ruth Strauss Foundation, a charity raising money for sufferers of lesser-known lung cancers and their families.
Last Tuesday, he announced the inaugural Ruth Strauss Day to take place at next month’s Test match against Australia. As scores of new fans turn to a sport currently in the spotlight, it is a fitting tribute to the woman who helped to make it possible.
- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019