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Cricket: Final test for Hussain

NASSER HUSSAIN'S chances of leading England into this week's third Test against New Zealand at Old Trafford will rest on the outcome of a net session today.

Hussain, who fractured his right middle finger during the nine-wicket defeat at Lord's 10 days ago, picked up a bat for the first time yesterday since suffering the injury in the Test at Lord's. He had around 10 minutes of throw-downs from physio Wayne Morton, wincing several times and taking his injured bottom hand off the bat when attempting more aggressive strokes, before sitting out a fielding practice curtailed by rain.

His less than convincing performance has left England resigned to losing both their captain and most in-form batsman, although both the manager, David Graveney, and Morton are prepared to give him a further day to prove his fitness before handing the reins over to the stand-in, Mark Butcher.

"Today was his first hold of a bat since he did the injury and he was encouraged by it because it didn't hurt him too much," said Morton. "He was pleased with it, but it is a long way from batting out in the middle. He hasn't ruled himself out of selection just yet, but if I'm honest I wouldn't put him at any more than 50-50 at present. He wants to do himself and the team justice if he plays and the great concern is that he does not do himself any more harm."

That prognosis was shared by Graveney, who will want to see Hussain bat properly in the nets against attack bowling at Test-match speed before assessing his likelihood of playing. "We would like to see the odds shift in his favour some more before he could play," Graveney said. "People can make their own conclusions about today, but if I was asked whether that was a perfect net I would have to answer: `Probably not'."

Lancashire have taken pounds 528,660 in advance sales, with over 11,000 expected on Friday, and with local hero Michael Atherton now installed in England's line-up, they are expected to boost those figures with fans paying on the gate.

"We're hoping people may be influenced to turn up on the day by his return," said Lancashire's chief executive, Jim Cumbes.

Brian Viner, page 18