England opt for calm after the storm

History at Headingley: Euphoria of startling victory turns into sober assessment as Hussain plans ahead
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The Independent Online

These may not be the best days of our lives. There are too few of them for that. But they are progressively extraordinary and until Friday at Headingley the rack had not been invented on which credibility could be stretched so far.Modern technology allied to modern technique.

These may not be the best days of our lives. There are too few of them for that. But they are progressively extraordinary and until Friday at Headingley the rack had not been invented on which credibility could be stretched so far.Modern technology allied to modern technique.

Here was unprecedented stuff and not only because it made the first time England have gone into the Fifth Test at The Oval 2-1 up after falling behind in a series interrupted by a one-day triangular tournament. It may have been the 16th occasion a Test match had been completed in two days - nine of them in the 19th century and the first since 1946 - but never before had a match scheduled to last five days been done and dusted, home and hosed so early.

Nasser Hussain was perhaps being mildly disingenuous when he said it was "for the people upstairs" to decide if it was the right thing for the game to finish so early. The England and Wales Cricket Board must feel like the man who has his wallet nicked from the dining-room table while he is being handed his winnings from the Church raffle at the front door. They have lost afortune - somewhere upwards of £1 million so far in this foreshortened series as a whole - while gaining the untoldriches of publicity and public acclamation.

Hussain is too smart a cookie to think that Test matches have a future if they become in effect two sets of one-day matches which happen to favour bowlers. Much more of this sort of thing and the game's enduring virtues in which batsmen build long, painstaking innings, if necessary blocking the cork out of the ball for two days while breaking the hearts and minds of bowlers and sometimes bringing the proceedings to a standstill, will be gone forever. There is, of course, a happy medium, and this series, while compelling, has not found it. The standard of pitches has been generally lower than the standard of batting on them, but often not by much.

This weekend, no matter. It should be mentioned for the record that England are beating a side who on successive tours have been pulverised by Pakistan, squashed by South Africa and annihilated by New Zealand. Only for the record.

England have done everything that could have been reasonably expected of them since losing the First Test of the rubber in such calamitous circumstances back in June. They lost, you may not recall considering the frenetic if short-lived activity since, by an innings and 93 runs after being bowled out for 125 as late as the third afternoon. They then had to come from behind in both the series and the match at Lord's. They have now taken the lead and lie dormie for the sixth time in a full series of five or six. Three times they have gone on to win.

Hussain, as ever, said most other things right as he had done them right on the field minutes earlier. It must have taken a supreme effort to prevent himself resembling the cat who had got the cream but he managed it. He insisted properly that the series was not yet won and that was how he and the team would be judged.

But they were beginning to formulate a team. Beginning was the appropriate description. The team making history in Leeds showed no fewer than five changes from the one who stumbled so wretchedly at Edgbaston. They could hardly yet be described as settled and the saviours who have emerged should not bank on being cast into damnation sometime around November in Lahore, earlier if it all goeshorribly wrong at The Oval.

Unquestionably, however, England have made advances. It is merely a case of being strict in analysing them, as David Graveney said yesterday after having a night to sleep on the Leeds deeds (presumably after a party): "You don't want to shout too much about the progress we're making."

The chairman of selectors was appropriate in allowing himself to add: "But I believe that the combination of Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain is laying real foundations for the future, and that is no criticism of those that went before."

Fletcher is a calm man who has quietly cajoled his players and gained their respect. Hussain has benefited from his years in the ranks, watching others do it, working out his own ways and his own refusal to be stirred by easy picking has been admirable.

They will not dash off to The Oval preening themselves, these fellows. Job still to be done and all that. Nobody should overlook the part that serendipity has played. England now have two outstanding young batsmen in Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, neither of whom has yet made a Test century.

But Trescothick was summoned originally to the one-day squad only because of injury and Vaughan, despite being deeply impressive in the winter, was kept waiting after breaking a finger this summer. Doubtless, he would have been reinstated quickly but it happened when it did - at Lord's - only because of injury to another. But selectors need luck like players. They deserve Vaughan and Trescothick.

There was an element of irony in Graveney's statement that: "They have come through the system that everybody criticises and look comfortable in Test cricket." Despite, not because of, Mr Chairman. Vaughan's 76 on Friday took the match away from the West Indies. Graveney called it outstanding and he was not praising it too highly.

The England bowling (and, usually, their fielding) has found itself. Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick are a real pair of opening fast bowlers. The way Gough knocked over the top in short-order fashion and the way in which Caddick then removed the tail showed their potency and their complementary nature.

In their different ways, they are revelling in it. Gough always knew it could be like this, though there have been doubts along the way, ever since he broke down in Australia on his first, joyous (until then) tour. Caddick has been at his peak for 18 months. But it is here and now that he has found his perfect partner. He knew it, he said, when they first bowled together back in 1996 against New Zealand. Ridiculous, naturally, to talk in the same breath of Willis and Botham, or, dare one whisper more sacrilegiously, Trueman and Statham. But not so ridiculous any longer. Not so silly at all.

England now have a team to pick for The Oval. They discussed it yesterday and their main musings would have been on the likely need for a spinner. They should decide not to pick one unless there is one good enough. There isn't.

It is 31 years since a better England than this beat a better West Indies than this. If they blow this now they will deserve to wait another 31.