Cricket: Hussain starts campaign to win back support

First Test: England's excited new captain mixes realism with patriotism for start of series against New Zealand
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FOLLOWING A quick-fix event like the World Cup with a Test series against New Zealand is a bit like newlyweds swapping the hurly burly of the chaise longue for the deep, deep, peace of the double bed. For England, whose early exit from the Carnival of Cricket brought a change of leadership, the chance to redress that disappointment under a new captain cannot come soon enough and today at Edgbaston will be as much a litmus test for the new millennium as a Test against the Kiwis.

Since his appointment last Friday, Nasser Hussain has been impressively realistic about England's place in the scheme of things. His honesty may not have impressed his employers, but at least he appears to be steering free of the usual England captain's trap of saying one thing and believing another. It is still early days and those with a decent memory will recall the early days of Michael Atherton's tenure, when smiles and words of more than one syllable were the norm rather than the exception.

It is not all about realism and Hussain played on the heart strings of patriots when he said that it was time again to restore pride and meaning to wearing an England cap. "We need to win back the support of the country by playing good cricket and winning this Test series," he said yesterday. "That's the bottom line."

With the captain's role set to be strengthened rather than diluted, Hussain could start the process by streamlining the support staff. Team England may have a chummy supermarket ring to it, but is it really necessary to have 14 employees of the England and Wales Cricket Board - as there were at Edgbaston on Tuesday - to keep 13 players happy? Although Hussain claims to be an adherent to the ways of Team England he is also keen for players to do their own thing.

"At this level players should know their own game and if they want to do their own preparation they should be allowed to," he said. If that sounds fair enough to most, some may construe it as against the team ethic and therefore selfish, a charge many have already levelled (mainly from flimsy circumstantial evidence) against England's new skipper.

One point Hussain keeps iterating is that he is not naive. His other favourite is "not to read too much into it", which, judging by the record of new captains, is just as well. Since 1980, England have used 13 captains, a rapid turnover given that Atherton was a record-breaker, and the last eight have started off with a loss. You have to go back to Lord's in 1982 and Bob Willis to find a winner.

When you boil it down, captaincy is all about making the right choices at the right time and Hussain's first will be to pick the four bowlers that will do his bidding. At yesterday's press conference he said he would be wary of going into any Test without a spinner, though the threat of rain today, and again at the weekend, may cause him to change his mind and use four seamers.

Providing that Phil Tufnell plays - amazingly it will be only his eighth Test at home - two others will join Alan Mullally to form the three-pronged strike-force used to prise apart New Zealand's batting, a tougher unit under Steve Rixon than when England last played them in 1996-97. The two favourites are Andy Caddick and Alex Tudor which will give England one of its tallest pace attacks ever. All are over 6ft 3in, a feature that can be used to good effect at Edgbaston, where the bounce tends to become more variable as the match goes on and the surface dries out and begins to crack.

From his own point of view, Hussain says he is "very excited" and that leading his team out will be a "big moment" for him. The man he deposes, Alec Stewart, could also be in for a thrill and, providing he makes more than 32 runs in the match, he will be the ninth England batsmen to pass 6,000 Test runs.

"Mind you there are more important things than me being excited," reckons Hussain. "It's how I build up the other 10 players and get them to perform. It's the result of this match and the result of the series on which I'll be judged.

"We've got a good combination in the dressing-room of players who've done well, players who are coming back with a point to prove, as well as two new lads making their debuts."

Making your debut under a new captain, who barely knows you from a bar of soap, can be a trying experience. To ease the tension and increase the familiarity, a drinks party was thrown for Aftab Habib and Chris Read on Tuesday night at the team's hotel. Irrespective of the pairs' contributions, Read will make history as the youngest wicket-keeper to play Test cricket for England. At 20 years and 325 days he beats Alan Knott, one of the specialist coaches here, by some five months.

Despite New Zealand's appalling record in England - just two wins from 40 Tests - they will not be pushovers. Their bowling, fronted by Geoff Allott and the highly regarded Simon Doull, will be highly competitive in English conditions. Unlike England they have a genuine all-rounder in Chris Cairns, while Roger Twose, after a fine World Cup, will want to improve on his moderate Test record.

With England keen to erase memories of a poor World Cup and New Zealand desperate to rid themselves of their image as a team of dour percentage men, this series could yet provide an intriguing dessert to follow the main course - with Hussain the man to rekindle the public's palate.

ENGLAND (v New Zealand, First Test, Edgbaston) From: M A Butcher (Surrey), A J Stewart (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex, capt), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M A Ramprakash (Middlesex), Aftab Habib (Leicestershire), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), A R Caddick (Somerset), A J Tudor (Surrey), C E W Silverwood (Yorkshire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex), D W Headley (Kent), A D Mullally (Leicestershire).

NEW ZEALAND: From: R G Twose, M J Horne, S P Fleming (capt), N J Astle, C D McMillan, C L Cairns, A C Parore (wkt), D J Nash, D L Vettori, S B Doull, G I Allott, M D Bell.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and P Willey (Eng).