Cricket: Hussain can usher in new attitude

England's future: Failure in Cricket World Cup has wasted a crucial chance to attract interest through one-day game
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The Independent Online
IF IT WAS the outcome the England and Wales Cricket Board were most dreading, the inevitable post-mortem, following England's early exit from the World Cup, will not offer much comfort either. First-class cricket in England has been presenting symptoms of decline for so long that only the most myopic eyes can have failed to be alerted. With England cricket struggling to be a major player in global terms, it now appears that the bland have been leading the bland all along.

What little has been done to address the problems, has largely been a compromise - a fudge to prevent an already divided game from further cleaving itself apart. Now, as one prominent former England captain of recent ilk has put it, the issues, instead of being massaged, have now to be addressed with deeds rather than rhetoric. A two divisional County Championship while feigning innovation will not provide the concentration of talent a regional competition or an increased quota of overseas players would. Cricket needs to spread its net wide, but it also has to apply some stringent filters to remove the chaff as well.

Cures are not easy, or instant, despite what the ECB says about the grass roots. Kwik cricket, despite its non-discriminatory fun for children, is not the real McCoy, which is time consuming, elaborate and requisite of great skill and mental rigour. Until that is taken on board by the majority of schools, and those that purport to spread the game, cricket's future is going to be half-baked. That is why England's botched chance to sell cricket to a young public increasingly attracted by other sports, will probably be rued for years to come.

Much more pressing however, and the only sure-fire way to win back friends, is to start planning to win the next World Cup now. Test cricket might be the holy grail to the initiated, but it is one-day cricket that can seduce a marginal audience. For that reason, England need to play more of it and it was instructive to note that while India had eight players with over a hundred one-dayers to their name, England had just two.

First things first though, and before the brains trust repairs for a round of stiff gin and tonics, the national team needs a new coach and probably a new captain.

Alec Stewart was as grim-faced as an Easter Island stone head after England's loss to India, and with good reason. A proud hard-working cricketer, being in charge of England has suddenly made Stewart look all of his 36 years. It is not old for a batsman, or a wicketkeeper, nor for that matter a captain. But for someone attempting to master all three, as Stewart has done for the past year, the burden is lunacy, and the selectors must surely take the bulk of the blame for not seeing that.

Stewart, never keen to admit defeat, says he would like to carry on as captain, a job he claims to have enjoyed. He is a fine wicket-keeper and a destructive batsman when in form, but Stewart is not a natural leader, despite his recent boldness and a CV that can claim England's first five- Test series win for 12 years. To get the best out of him over the next 18 months - by which time his expiry date will almost certainly be due - he should be given two roles at most.

Candidates for one of the most onerous and demanding jobs in sport, unless some lateral and inspired thinking is forthcoming, are not exactly thick on the ground. Discounting Darren Gough and Alan Mullally, who are both essentially daft fast bowlers, only Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash are certain of their place, a prime consideration for any international captain these days. Those outside that orbit, but worthy of a plug, would be Robin Smith and Nick Knight, though neither has featured recently in the Test side.

A dark horse, Thorpe has never previously shown much interest in captaincy, while Ramprakash, has probably not quite put all his past demons to rest. Which essentially leaves Hussain as the best choice should the selectors decide against Stewart for the four-Test series against New Zealand that begins in a month's time.

An astute thinker who speaks his mind, Hussain is both single-minded and passionate about his cricket, a mixture that has perhaps clashed in the past with both officialdom and less-driven team-mates. There are rumours that his appointment would put some prominent noses within the team out of joint.

If true, it should not be an issue. As Douglas Jardine, England's captain during Bodyline could attest, popularity should never stand in the way of excellence and Hussain's credentials are worthy enough for him to be given a run whatever the downside. Indeed, having been considered an awkward cove himself once, Hussain is far less likely to alienate talented but complex characters like Andy Caddick, Chris Lewis and Dominic Cork.

One of the biggest criticisms of recent England regimes is their lack of tolerance towards those perceived to be difficult. While team spirit is important, it should not be protected from wayward talents, which rather than being banished to the fallow fields of county cricket, should be coaxed and harnessed to deliver upon their potential.

The appointment of a coach is less pressing, a fact evidenced by the probable caretaker role of David Graveney, the current chairman of selectors. One of David Lloyd's outstanding achievements as England coach was to install an infrastructure that allowed England's players to be some of the best prepared in world cricket.

With that in place, Graveney, along with specialist coaches Graham Gooch, Bob Cottam, Alan Knott and John Emburey, can run the show until the end of the season when the counties - if that is where the appointee should come from - would be better disposed towards releasing Lloyd's successor.

Lloyd, now about to start a job with Sky TV, is adamant the job should stay at home. "In my own mind, I'm certain it has to be an Englishman," England's outgoing coach said. "If it isn't, it's just someone drawing a salary. I know other teams have foreign coaches but there's more to it than that. In any case there are enough English coaches about willing and able enough to do the job."

Following Bob Woolmer's professed lack of interest, it is the name of Jack Birkenshaw, Leicestershire's respected coach, that has been dropped most. Yet engaging and knowledgeable as he is, there is a feeling that like Lloyd's predecessor, Keith Fletcher, Birkenshaw will be out of his depth. In any case, with so many specialists around, is there the need for a central figure other than to provide a target for the media when England lose.

If there is, Lloyd says their biggest challenge will be to prevent England's batting from buckling under pressure. Oh and they need to win more regularly as well. Providing they can do that, Lloyd reckons both players and coach can get away with anything. Even the heirarchy's obsession with being clean shaven.

ENGLAND'S RECORD UNDER LLOYD

1996

India (home)

Tests: England won 1-0

One-Day Internationals: England won 2-0

Pakistan (home)

Tests: Pakistan won 2-0

ODI: England won 2-0

1996/7

Zimbabwe (away)

Tests: Draw 0-0

ODI: Zimbabwe won 3-0

1997

New Zealand (away)

Tests: England won 2-0

ODI: Draw 2-2

Australia (home)

Tests: Australia won 3-2

ODI: England won 3-0

Akai Singer Champions' Trophy

England won 4 matches including final

1998

West Indies (away)

Tests: West Indies won 3-1

ODI: West Indies won 4-1

(Atherton quits as captain after the Test series; Adam Hollioake captains for one-day series.)

South Africa (home)

(Stewart is made captain)

Tests: England won 2-1

ODI: South Africa won 2-1

Sri Lanka (home)

Tests: Sri Lanka won 1-0

Emirates Triangular Tournament

England won 1, lost 2

1998/9

Australia (away)

Tests: Australia won 3-1

ODI: (Carlton United Series, also including Sri Lanka) Australia won (England won 5, lost 7)

1999

World Cup

England won 3, lost 2, exiting the tournament at the first stage.

David Lloyd's record as coach

Won 8 Tests from 28 and 24 one-day internationals out of 49.

Alec Stewart's record as captain

Won 2 Tests out of 6 and won 10 one-day internationals from 23 matches.

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