Hussain aims at steady improvement

The England captain, Nasser Hussain, has warned his players they must learn to walk before they can run in this summer's Test series against Zimbabwe and the West Indies.

Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australia are touted by many as the benchmark to which England should aspire, but Hussain feels that would be a step too far for his emerging side.

Hussain is adamant that the rebuilding process must continue over the coming year to prepare for the visit of Australia for the Ashes in 2001.

"I think Australia, at the moment, stand out well above everyone else in world cricket," he said, "and I think we've got to compare ourselves with the pack. We've got to try and be the norm, rather than be at the bottom.

"That's the problem with English cricket. People expect miracles overnight and are always asking 'why aren't you like Australia?' and saying we need to be up to Australian standards.

"What we've got to do is take it stage by stage. What we've got to do first is make sure we are as good as the West Indies, and then as good as Pakistan and then as good as South Africa - and then we will compete with Australia.

"I just think that this summer is an ideal opportunity to go stage by stage. We need to try and beat Zimbabwe first - make sure we stay above them. Then the next people are West Indies; we will have to make sure we beat them and gradually move on to Australia."

The Essex batsman has called on his players to stand up and be counted if they are to achieve Test series success against both Zimbabwe and the West Indies over the coming months.

"Hopefully we can have some success against two sides who we can beat," he said. "But if we don't play to our full potential and people don't take individual responsibility then they can also beat us, as they have shown in the past.

"We competed well in the winter and we've got to take it a stage further now and start winning Test series because that's what people want us to do - be a successful England cricket team."

Hussain wants to develop winning as a habit for England and feels that is one area where they should look to learn from Australia.

"If you take the three games we won in a row at the end of the winter in Zimbabwe then winning becomes a habit and you want to carry on winning," he said. "You can sense as a captain that you don't have to say much to people because they like that habit of winning. It hurts if you keep losing or keep drawing and it just becomes the norm."

The introduction of central contracts is designed to improve the standard of English cricket at international level, but Hussain has warned there are tough times ahead for everyone involved in the game if they are ever to compete with the Australians.

"We've got to keep it very simple," he said, "but also look at the long-term aim - which is Australia next summer.

"We've got two good series at home that we can win and then two very difficult series away against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which will all be an ideal build-up for Australia in a year's time."