Cricket: Calm follows the carnival

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The Independent Online
NO FLAGS, no klaxons, no whistles, no firecrackers. After the vivid colours and the vibrant soundtrack that made the World Cup such an extraordinary experience, English cricket returned to cherished traditions yesterday. Edgbaston was half-empty, the pockets of spectators for the most part largely quiet. Had it not been for someone's decision to let schoolkids in for next to nothing, they could have happily nodded off.

Of course, the task of selling this match was not to be envied. After the mess they made of their World Cup, England did not expect to have punters queueing overnight for tickets and local estimates of Birmingham's interest in the opening Test proved entirely correct. The children chirping noisily in the Rea Bank stand, holding up their number fours (sixes were not required) and even the odd flag of St George with unsullied enthusiasm, watched a whole day's cricket for pounds 6, but one sensed that no amount of discounting could have made a full house from this particular sow's ear.

But none of that mattered to Nasser Hussain. As first days go, it had all been most pleasing. Had they not been out of their seats and heading for the exits the moment they realised New Zealand were all out, the grown ups in the crowd might even have managed some polite applause.

Nothing must have given Hussain greater satisfaction from his debut as England captain than to see Phil Tufnell and Andrew Caddick share 60 per cent of the wickets. Neither had a look-in, quite literally, under Alec Stewart, overlooked for selection throughout the former captain's entire tenure. It was Tufnell's first Test match on home soil for almost two years, since taking 7 for 66 and 4 for 27 against Australia at The Oval in August 1997.

A change of leadership can be a fine thing when old thoughts and prejudices need to be cast aside. There is an argument that a Test cap should be all the motivation an England player requires but there is a need even at the highest level to feel appreciated. And these are two erstwhile discards for whom support has gone in peaks and troughs.

But Hussain offered them unequivocal faith, as he did the two debutants, Chris Read and Aftab Habib, and Mark Butcher, whose willingness to accept the role of fourth seamer was important with the inclusion of Tufnell. The pace bowlers Chris Silverwood and Dean Headley were the exclusions from the original 13 as England sought variation in their attack. Butcher's bowling has had to be limited because of a groin problem in recent seasons but he proved his effectiveness with 4 for 30 against Lancashire in the Championship last month and rewarded Hussain yesterday with his first Test wicket.

The last time England were at Edgbaston it was to lose to India in the World Cup but, as Caddick observed, the sombre mood in which the players left the dressing rooms 34 days ago appears to have left no hangover. "There was a very good and confident mood about the place," he said. "Nasser has done a great job."

Hussain did not himself appear, disappearing instead for treatment on a minor strain. In his absence, David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said he reckoned 275 to 300 would have been "a par score" despite Adam Parore's assertion that a good start for New Zealand's bowlers today could make 226 look reasonable.

Meanwhile, Graveney was asking his batsmen to lift the air of somnolence. "We have to perform in a way to win back cricket supporters in this country," he said. Only 11,000 were won back yesterday, according to the official figure, and of those the subsidised under-16s made up more than a third.

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