England need to find crumbs of comfort

Fourth Ashes Test: Hussain's return lifts beleaguered hosts as they seek improvement before forthcoming tours of India and New Zealand
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As England desperately try to mount their damage limitation exercise against Australia, the gravity-defying wonders of Headingley 1981 are being aired. Why not, for as a nation we have long enjoyed a hearty wallow in nostalgia, but as Nasser Hussain, England's returning captain, was quick to point out, they are scarcely relevant to his underperforming team's miserable summer.

"I think everyone likes to look back to the glory days but we've got to be careful we don't do that," said Hussain at a new-look Headingley yesterday. "It's our job to set English cricket up so it is good in the future. It's no good saying that the last 18 months have been successful when we keep losing now."

Hussain's return from a broken finger is a welcome fillip for his team, though a couple of innings in the second team are not realistic preparation for Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Nevertheless he was adamant that it was vital to salvage something from this summer of discontent.

"The Ashes are gone," added Hussain, "but English cricket has got to carry on. Starting now, we need to put in the performances and get the ball rolling again."

Yet the future of which the England captain speaks is complicated. First, there is the immediate potentially face-saving challenge of the back-to-back Tests against Australia, which is then followed by tours of India and New Zealand in the mid-term, tours which Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart have yet to publicly commit themselves to.

Both are still playing well enough for their places in the side to remain unchallenged. India is arguably the toughest tour of all and both Hussain and Duncan Fletcher would be grateful for their nous on and off the field. In addition there are murmurings that Darren Gough wants to skip the Test series in India, a request that if true may be granted quicker than realised if he continues to bowl as poorly as he has been.

"I have an inkling as to what Atherton's and Stewart's thoughts are," the England captain said. "In an ideal world I'd like to know for sure by the time we get to The Oval [in seven days' time]. I have great respect for both of them, especially what they have both done for English cricket. With 114 Tests apiece, they still have a lot to offer but only if there is the desire from within.

"There may be others who want to rest from either the Tests or the one-dayers. I know Duncan has strong thoughts on the matter, but I don't want to shut the door on anyone. We'll have to review each on an individual basis. We'll listen and make a qualified decision that also takes into account the future."

With a testimonial year for Surrey next season, Stewart is not about to retire, though he may have reservations about going to India. At his time of career, he should not be allowed to pick and choose. James Foster, the Essex wicketkeeper touted as a potential successor, has a year of his degree left at Durham University, so would only ideally be available midway through next summer.

By contrast Atherton will not renew his contract at Lancashire, which ends in September. This would not prevent him from playing on for England, only that it will be limited to this winter. He is batting well and his back has been in relatively good order and facing the new ball in India is a dream – Matthew Hayden averaged 109.8 there in a recent series. Against this, he has his autobiography to write, a lucrative television contract with Channel 4 to consider and a future outside the game to plan.

It is also possible the next two matches could make his mind up for him. Both he and Stewart have suffered more than most over the years at the hands of Australia and another humbling here and at The Oval might be the deciding factor.

Headingley, with its spanking new Western terrace and spiffy Sir Len Hutton gates (both opened yesterday), is looking a different place. The pitch too looks unusual, being bare enough for England to put their four-seamer tactic on hold until their final XI is chosen this morning. Their dilemma is one of time and, while there is little doubt that Shane Warne will have a ball landing his leg-breaks into the denuded areas around leg-stump, England may decide that Robert Croft would have to wait too long to get into the game. Given that all three Tests have finished inside three days, it is not much good picking a bowler to exploit turn expected on days four and five.

Those watching Yorkshire's matches claim the pitches have been full of runs, something Australia have always found here. In each of their last three visits, in 1989, '93 and '97, their first-innings totals have exceeded the 600-mark. According to their stand-in captain, Adam Gilchrist, there will be no let-up in intensity despite the Ashes being decided in record time.

"We began to focus in two days before this Test as we always do," said Gilchrist. "The desire to do well is the same, if not greater, now the side are without Steve Waugh. Although our main aim was the Ashes, we have set ourselves some goals as a group."

If Waugh were English, his absence would be an irreparable loss. Australia have depth and, although Waugh has conjured the big innings time and again in the past, it is Gilchrist who has been England's nemesis on this tour.

In three innings, the Australian wicketkeeper has scored 296 runs at an average of 98.67, a stupendous effort batting at No 7, and England need to keep his murderous batting to an absolute minimum if they are not to be humbled again.

ENGLAND (from): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M A Atherton (Lancashire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), M R Ramprakash (Surrey), U Afzaal (Nottinghamshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), A J Tudor (Surrey), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Hampshire), R L Johnson (Somerset), R D B Croft (Glamorgan).

AUSTRALIA: A C Gilchrist (capt, wkt), M L Hayden, M J Slater, R T Ponting, M E Waugh, D R Martyn, S M Katich, S K Warne, B Lee, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and S Venkataraghavan (India).