England consider replacing Hussain with Collingwood

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The Independent Online

Nasser Hussain's position at the top of England's batting order is under pressure for the first time since he scored his maiden Test century against against India in 1996. During this seven-and-a-half year period Hussain was selected for every Test he was fit to play in. But this 83-match run could come to an abrupt end tomorrow should Michael Vaughan pick Paul Collingwood instead of the former England captain.

England were widely criticised in Kandy for playing only three specialist bowlers. And with this three-Test series there to be won over the next week, Vaughan looks set to return to a more balanced and positive five-man attack.

"Nasser could miss out," said Vaughan - before adding the same about Collingwood. "If we play an extra bowler we will then have to decide whether we stick with the experience of Nasser Hussain or go with Paul Collingwood, who is playing well at the minute. It will be a tough decision."

Dropping Hussain would seem harsh even though the 35-year-old has spent very little time at the crease in Sri Lanka. Indeed, since scoring 95 in the second Test against Bangladesh six weeks ago, the Essex batsman has had just three innings in which he has totalled 27 runs.

"Nasser is playing OK but he probably needs more time in the middle," said Vaughan. "I always say to myself that I am one knock away from a hundred and this is all Nasser is. He obviously missed the first game through illness and had an unfortunate dismissal in the practice match."

To a player who has averaged over 40 for England in the last two years this period will seem nothing more than a blip, but Hussain has been put under pressure by Collingwood's encouraging displays during the last two Test matches.

The Durham batsman owed his Test debut to the fact that Hussain picked up a virus on the morning of the first Test. Although he scored only one run in the first innings, his three-hour stay in the second was one of the main reasons why England hung on for a draw. Collingwood also batted for over three hours in Kandy and it is his ability to handle Muttiah Muralitharan which has excited the selectors.

In each of the first two Tests England lost important tosses which meant the draw was almost the only positive result they could play for. Such an attitude has ensured Vaughan's side still have a chance of winning this series, but England's tactics in Kandy have not gone down well with John Dyson, the Sri Lankan coach.

"The English attitude surprised me, given that it was a very fast outfield and a very good wicket," said the former Australian opener on England's decision not to chase the 368 set by Sri Lanka. "The pitch wasn't turning viciously and I would have thought here was a chance to rewrite the record books. They had the whole of the final day plus an entire session on the fourth day to chase the runs. It was a hell of a lot of time to get that amount of runs on that wicket. England settled for a draw. It was a staggering attitude. We have played the more positive cricket between the two teams."

In reaction, Vaughan said: "If the Sri Lankan coach is happy with their performance then fine. We were happy to get away with a draw. We fought really hard and it is pretty difficult to score 300 on the last day of a Test match against a spinner of the calibre of Muralitharan."

If England are to provide a repeat of their memorable victory here two years ago, one feels they need to win the toss. They are due. In Sri Lanka England captains have called wrongly on five consecutive occasions. The pitch, though, looks like it may have a bit more in it for England's pace attack which should be bolstered by the return of Lancashire's James Anderson.

"The wicket looks pretty firm and could have some bounce in it if it plays like the practice pitch six strips down," said Vaughan. "This pitch assisted the seamers and it is likely that we will play another bowler. The wicket at the Sinhalese Sports Club is normally a result wicket so it will be the team which plays and handles the pressure best that will probably come out victorious."

Though he ended the second Test with a sore back, England expect Andrew Flintoff to be fit, so the last fast-bowling spot will be contested between James Kirtley, Richard Johnson and Matthew Hoggard.

Gareth Batty and Chris Read helped save the second Test by batting for almost an hour and a half, but both will need to improve if they are to keep their places during England's tour of the Caribbean in 2004. Batty's batting should keep Robert Croft on the side-lines, but he needs to take wickets as well as score runs. Read has kept well here but he has to score runs consistently if he is to keep his nose ahead of Geraint Jones.

In an effort to give Muralitharan support and add variety to their bowling attack, Sri Lanka may select Upul Chandana and Dilhara Fernando instead of Kumar Dharmasena and Dinusha Fernando.