Cricket: Hussain the leader to excite England

Alec Stewart has the image, but his rival in the captaincy race has the imagination, says Derek Pringle
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been described as the most onerous job in British sport, though Graham Taylor might have contested that particular claim during his time in charge of the nation's football side. But if the hours are long, the pay modest and the frustration quotient high, it seems there are still people willing to captain England's Test team and next Tuesday will see Michael Atherton's successor named at Lord's.

According to David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, there are only two candidates: Surrey's Alec Stewart and the Essex and England vice-captain, Nasser Hussain. Unsurprisingly, most opinion favours Stewart, but that is mainly because English cricket has a habit of taking the safe option and consoling the present, rather than risking uncertainty and addressing the future.

Where the Surrey man perhaps scores highest, is in the style over content category, a quality that Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the English Cricket Board, writing on the matter last week, appears to place above all others. Neat and freshly peeled at all times, Stewart comes closest to conforming to the image of a captain, as MacLaurin the cricket fan remembers them from the past.

The reality is somewhat different and as most opponents from around the world will vouch, Stewart's pristine image stops at his spotless whites. This, however, is not a criticism. Modern sport is tough and even tougher for England's cricketers who are still saddled with being the torchbearers of some outmoded moral code.

It is an area where Hussain clearly lags behind and MacLaurin's stated dislike of stubble, baseball caps and gum chewing, while primarily a thinly veiled snipe at Atherton, can also be applied to Hussain. Perhaps it is fortunate for the Essex man, that the chairman has only the right to veto the captain chosen, rather than appoint him.

Yet in the same breath, MacLaurin admits that cricket needs to attract more young people, something Hussain's dashing cool would surely do, particularly to those whose interest in the game is perhaps marginal. Surely then, big Mac cannot have his burger and then expect to eat it as well.

At the business, rather than the PR end of the job, ie what happens on the field, the differences between the two candidates are even more pronounced. If Stewart has the image, it is Hussain who has the imagination.

England apart, Hussain has been schooled in a winning environment at Essex, something that Stewart, has experienced in the last two years, and then only at one-day level. Knowing how to deliver victory from promising positions is crucial in Test matches and it remained Atherton's weakest point throughout his long reign as the England captain.

Dave Gilbert, formerly the coach at Surrey and now Sussex's director of cricket remembers Stewart's leadership as being strictly by the book. "At Surrey, Alec was very regimented as a captain," said Gilbert, "though I think he's had his eyes opened since Adam Hollioake took over. If he does get the England job, I think he'd be a lot more flexible than he was a few years ago."

Being damned with faint praise is not Hussain's style, which is both imaginative and bold. But while some believe him to be selfish - batting has always been a fairly selfish pursuit - others, notably Keith Fletcher, believe he reads situations on the field better and quicker than most.

"Nasser is very aware as a captain," says Fletcher. "He is less inclined to do the obvious. Of course there is nothing wrong with the obvious providing you've got a couple of world-class strike bowlers, but England have not. He's prepared to try things and gamble a little, which his what you have to do with a bowling attack like England's. He also talks well to both players and press."

Inevitably, both players have their pros and cons and Graveney and his fellow selectors, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, will no doubt have chewed them over a 100 times. However, by far the most important factor if England are to play a five-man bowling attack, is Stewart's value as a batsman who keeps wicket.

When batting, Stewart is at his best when the ball is bouncing above the knee roll of his pads. Ideally then, he needs to bat in the top three. Against South Africa, and Australia later in the year, he needs to bat at his best and keep wicket almost as well.

Burdening him with the captaincy on top of this vital all-round role would be asking too much and undoubted uber-player that he is, it invites the sort of compromise that one former England captain believes will give South Africa a 10 per cent advantage before a ball is bowled. In any case, the official reason given for him relinquishing the captaincy at Surrey, was so he could concentrate on his wicket-keeping.

Although no one deserves the honour of captaining his country more, the idea of picking Stewart as a stop-gap is utter nonsense. Even Wasim Akram has said as much, and he knows more than a thing or two about captaining in the short term.

Instead, it is time for English cricket to be bold, There has been too much pussyfooting about by the England Cricket Board in the name of change. Hussain may not be the ideal candidate - they appeared to dry up after Mike Brearley - but along with Adam Hollioake, whose name as England's one-day captain should also be announced on Tuesday, he is the most exciting. And it is excitement, not inertia that the game needs in order to flourish.

Test of character:

how the two

candidates fare in the ratings game

Pluses

Hussain: Aggressive, tactically astute and bold. Media-friendly (at the moment)

Stewart: Sound, well-respected old pro from "up and at 'em" school of captaincy." Experienced.

Minuses

Hussain: Volatile and unpredictable. Inexperience as captain.

Stewart: Squeaky-clean image, no deeper than the crease in his whites. Staid thinker. Tolerates media (just).

MacLaurin factor (smart, shaven, smiling)

Hussain: Suspect, though is intelligent enough to bite his tongue and remove favourite baseball cap.

Stewart: Top-notch. Will keep sponsors happy unless products conflict with those he is already endorsing.

Street cred

Hussain: Likes baseball caps and has pointy sideburns.

Stewart: Only with those who like the clean lines of Thunderbirds puppets.

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