Cricket: Hussain realistic about his role

England's new captain prepared to accept mavericks in attempt to restore the public's faith
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The Independent Online
AFTER THE appointment the anointment, and Nasser Hussain, dressed in his best bib and tucker, was making cautious pledges to where he might take English cricket. His coach to be, Duncan Fletcher, was at his side, but as he begins his two-year tenure in October, English cricket may have taken Hussain to an altogether darker place than the sun-dappled Lord's that greeted him yesterday. As the fate of his recent predecessors has shown, captaining the national team is high on angst and low on plaudits.

To his credit, and a plus for all those who have lost faith with English cricket, Hussain is a tough, ambitious character, who comes to the job with his eyes wide open. With a team to select for next week's first Test against New Zealand, he claims he will push for the best 11 cricketers to be picked irrespective of their maverick qualities. Perhaps it takes one to know one, but it would be no great surprise to see the likes of Andrew Caddick, Dominic Cork and Phil Tufnell, players dropped by less tolerant regimes, return to the fold.

"I've been on that side of the fence myself in the past," said Hussain, "and everyone will start with a clean sheet. After the results of the last few months, I think I can speak on behalf of David Graveney and the other selectors when I say that we will be picking the best players to try and turn things around. If that means someone who in the past has had a troublesome nature, we just have to make sure we get the best out of these people. As the coach has mentioned, man management is very important."

Earning his spurs with an Essex side used to success has given Hussain a strong taste for it. More than most, he realises that deeds rather than rhetoric are the only way to win back the faith of an increasingly indifferent public, an example of which presented itself yesterday.

"On the way here I stopped for breakfast," revealed Hussain, "when someone popped their head in the cafe and shouted out - `You've got a a job ahead of you, haven't you?' It summed it up really and we just have to win back support by doing well, starting at Edgbaston next week."

Brought up, at least in a professional sense, under the pragmatism of men like Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch, Hussain is not about to promise world domination. "We have to be realistic and we cannot keep comparing ourselves to the likes of Australia, South Africa and Pakistan when results show we are not in their league. When we beat South Africa last year suddenly everything was rosy in the garden. It isn't, and we have to realise what level we're at and try and move up."

Fletcher, who admitted he had first met his captain two hours before the press conference, will have a full vote on selection once he begins his job in the autumn. In the meantime, he will be consulted by Graveney, the chairman of selectors, while continuing his job as Glamorgan's coach.

"We've had a few watersheds recently," pointed out Hussain, "where England have chopped and changed and brought young players in. What we have to do is balance that change when its appropriate. For instance I would be very wary of discarding a player of Alec Stewart's quality.

"Not many realise quite what Alec has been through both physically and mentally these last few years. He is a fighter and I know he'll turn the disappointments of the last few days to his advantage. Having him in the side gives a team umpteen options and whether we open with him or he goes down the order and keeps, he has to be a serious contender."

Where Stewart finds himself will be vital to the balance of the side. Open with him and England require a keeper who can bat in the middle order, a job spec that could be filled by Chris Read, Paul Nixon or Rob Turner. If Nixon is the grittier of the three with the bat he is the worst gloveman, particularly when standing up. If Stewart is happy to take the gloves and bat at six then an opener, probably either Darren Maddy or Michael Vaughan, who captained England A last winter, will probably get the nod to partner Mark Butcher.

With a middle order of Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, there is room for an all-rounder, particularly if Stewart keeps wicket. The main contenders are Andrew Flintoff and Gavin Hamilton, depending on whether the emphasis lies with bat or ball. If it is the latter then Hamilton could well find himself a fully fledged Sassenach, two weeks after playing in the World Cup for Scotland.

Considering spin has been something of a luxury at Edgbaston in recent years, only one, Phil Tufnell, will be probably be chosen, though even he may be discarded come the day for another seamer. Peter Such bowled well in Australia and let no one down but the feeling is that England's one true match-winner among the slow men remains the Middlesex left-armer.

The pace bowling department is another matter and despite Gough's absence the cup is brimming full with worthy contenders. Providing Chris Silverwood's recent niggles have cleared up, he along with Caddick, Alan Mullally, Alex Tudor and Dean Headley will all come under close scrutiny when the selectors gather tonight. If Headley's form has been patchy, Tudor's 38 first-class wickets makes him the current race leader. As Hussain is only too aware, getting his players to replicate that kind of form in the Test arena is just one of the many tasks an England captain must perform.

ENGLAND (Possible squad v New Zealand, first Test, Edgbaston, 1 July): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M A Butcher (Surrey), A J Stewart (Surrey), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex), G M Hamilton (Yorkshire), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), A J Tudor (Surrey), A R Caddick (Somerset), A D Mullally (Leicestershire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex), D W Headley (Kent).