Cricket: Hussain's nous can put England house in order

Derek Pringle, Cricket Correspondent, believes Michael Atherton's successor as skipper must be able to lead by example
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The Independent Online
WHEN success and failure in sport can be measured in 10,000ths of a second, England's 3-1 defeat by the West Indies, on the back of three days' poor cricket, may seem a huge margin. In fact, on the poor pitches much of this series was played on there has been little between the sides. Had Angus Fraser not spilled that vital caught and bowled in the first Trinidad Test, Michael Atherton's successor, would not yet be so much as a twinkle in the eye.

Once a captain goes, particularly in dramatic circumstances, there inevitably follows a frenzy of speculation over who the successor might be. For once the candidates seem obvious, and a straight choice between Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart is where the wise money lies. Braver speculators, however, may like to consider Adam Hollioake, Mark Ramprakash and Nick Knight, the recent A team captain.

For many, not least those who long for a return to starched whites and stubble-free chins, the safest option would be to pick Stewart. At 35, he is no longer young, but his dedication and fitness are such that he could do the job until someone younger feels ready to take over. However, apart from his lack of distinction as captain of Surrey, there is one simple reason why Stewart should not be captain, and it concerns the immediate future of the England team.

Quite simply, if our best young talent are to realise their potential, they must experience Test cricket without being over-exposed, especially early on. For that reason Stewart's dotage must be spent keeping wicket and batting at No 3 or No 6, so that the likes of Ben Hollioake can be blooded at No 7.

If hierarchies mean anything, then Hussain, Atherton's vice-captain for the last two winters, ought to get the job. A passionate man, Hussain has a shrewd and alert cricketing brain and is good at dealing with the press.

However, as the last remaining vestige of Raymond Illingworth's time as chairman of selectors - it was Illy who appointed him as Atherton's deputy - he has his critics, and many feel he is moody and selfish. Ironically, these were two of the "accusations" initially levelled at Graham Gooch, now part of the selectorial panel who will appoint the new captain, probably in May. But if Hussain has his faults, the pluses outweigh them, and like Hollioake, he captained England A in Pakistan three winters ago, with distinction.

Hollioake's resumption as England's one-day captain after his success in Sharjah is bound to link him with the main job. An instinctive captain, he inspires his players more by word than deed. Like Knight, he has yet to prove he is good enough to command a Test place. If England's goal is to beat the best, you cannot carry players - not even captains.

Talk of Ramprakash is equally fatuous, at least at the moment. As captain of Middlesex, he is learning the ropes in the county game. In the Test arena he has only just found his feet let alone earned his epaulettes, and should not yet be burdened by anything more than scoring runs.

A lack of runs, according to the man himself, was one of the reasons that Atherton decided to resign. But while it is true that his career average has now dipped blow 40 - the benchmark of a good Test player - figures had little to do with him quitting a job that consumed him both publicly and privately.

Symmetry is often overlooked in sport, and Atherton's 52-match reign, as England captain - a total only exceeded by Allan Border and Clive Lloyd - was bookended by 3-1 losses to the West Indies. In between, there were also two defeats at the hands of Australia, both 3-1, as well as Pakistan and South Africa.

Worst of all, and what perhaps set him on the slippery slope as far as the media were concerned was the whinging and mediocre performances in Zimbabwe, where England lost three one-day matches, after drawing the Test series 0-0. The volume and viciousness of some of the criticism that ensued, left a bitter taste, which after the hysteria that followed the "soil in the pocket" incident two years earlier, caused him to harden, both inside and out.

Highlights, although fewer, would have included a drawn series against the West Indies and South Africa at home, as well as wins against New Zealand and India. Under him England certainly became more difficult to beat, but only at home.

Overall, one in four Tests were won under his leadership, a figure that revealed a lack of bowling depth and firepower. By his 50th Test in charge, some 50 players had been picked and it was a sure sign of England's weaknesses, that a clear majority of them were bowlers. It was similar story this time, with only the 32-year-old Fraser, who took 27 wickets in the series, performing with any distinction, on mostly bowler-friendly pitches.

To compound matters, the batsmen, Stewart and Ramprakash apart, peaked too late. Mind you, Atherton's insistence on picking John Crawley ahead of Ramprakash for the Trinidad Tests had all the hallmarks of an own goal, as did the continued selection of a hopelessly out of sorts Jack Russell.

Stubborn, occasionally to the point of inflexibility, he is popular with team-mates. His intransigence is both his strength and his weakness, although a chronically bad back is also taking its toll. The V-sign that slipped out in Barbados was not so much directed at Philo Wallace as against the situation, as England once again squandered a good batting performance by poor bowling. In a way, people should have rejoiced - it showed him to be not the emotional retard many like to suggest he is.

A resolute team man, he was talked out of resigning, not once, but twice. On the first occasion, following last summer's Ashes defeat at Trent Bridge, he had just dotted the i's on his resignation statement when Lord MacLaurin rang on his car phone and talked him round.

It is settled now and although he wants to play on for England and Lancashire, the captaincy defined rather than refined him. Unless his form and the joy he felt after his epic innings in Johannesburg return, life in the ranks may not appeal for long.

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