Hussain can find relaxation and runs down the order

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The Independent Online

An extended honeymoon finally came to an end this week. After 13 months of press coverage that could have come from a different age, Nasser Hussain is now coming under harsher scrutiny. His long run of low scores, previously mentioned only in passing, is now making headlines. It happened quite suddenly on Sunday - the day the papers are most anxious for a fresh angle - and continued on Monday because there was not much else to say about the Test selection. If David Graveney had seen it coming, he might have hastily added Andrew Flintoff to the squad, not as an all-rounder but a lightning conductor.

An extended honeymoon finally came to an end this week. After 13 months of press coverage that could have come from a different age, Nasser Hussain is now coming under harsher scrutiny. His long run of low scores, previously mentioned only in passing, is now making headlines. It happened quite suddenly on Sunday - the day the papers are most anxious for a fresh angle - and continued on Monday because there was not much else to say about the Test selection. If David Graveney had seen it coming, he might have hastily added Andrew Flintoff to the squad, not as an all-rounder but a lightning conductor.

The irony is that the press box is losing sympathy for Hussain just when he needs it most. It's hard enough being England captain, without having to do so when your authority is being mocked by your own bat. You can't get a run, and you can't hide - though Hussain tried to, self-defeatingly, in Kidderminster last week. But let's get this bad form in perspective. If Hussain's overall Test batting average is 37.12, what do you reckon his average as captain is? About 30? Or 25? Or 20? Actually it's 35.52. Which, given some of the pitches England have had to play on in the past year, is more than respectable. Mike Atherton's average in the same period was 33.

The Australian team management have a rule of thumb which states that a core player's place is only in danger if he has two bad seasons in a row. In England we start raising doubts, as Mark Ramprakash discovered last summer, when a player has two bad Tests. This is one of the reasons Australia are the best team in the world and England are not.

Hussain has not had two bad seasons. He has had one, in a summer that has been ruled by the fast bowlers (just look at the first-class stats: Courtney Walsh's bowling average is almost as low as his batting average). Yes, he looks terrible, but that's because he has a quirky technique, and he keeps coming in at 3 for 1 on juicy or uneven surfaces.

He has not suddenly become a bad player. Nor can anyone seriously say that being captain has been bad for his batting, after that sequence of 82, 70 and 146 for once out against Donald and Pollock in the winter. But there is one respect in which the captaincy has contributed to his troubles.

He is intensely conscientious about it - the first England captain you could say that of since Mike Brearley. Hussain did not just take the reins last year: he tried to reinvent the job. He is as much a manager as a captain. He is good at the job, as everyone agrees, but there are things he has still to learn and one of them is delegation. In the winter, he did not have a vice-captain, which was just silly. His batting in those big innings against South Africa was formidable but too defensive, as if he thought the whole team would collapse if he was out (he may well have been right).

Hussain is an intense person, which is a great quality and one English cricket needs more of, but one with a flipside. He finds it hard to switch off. After an overlong tour, he immediately found himself choosing the players who would get central contracts. When he broke his thumb before the second Test, he stayed with the team - "my team" as he invariably calls them. Atherton used to escape to the Lake District. Not so easy when you live in Essex, but Hussain needs his equivalent.

Anyone who has had a managerial job will recognise the syndrome. You start off full of energy and ideas, and anxious to impose yourself. You know how you want things done and often it is easier to do them yourself. You go on holiday but you keep in touch with the office, driving them mad in the process. After a year or so, you learn to relax. The difference of course is that the rest of us do not go through this little education in public, with two great fast bowlers - not to mention 50 vultures with laptops - scenting blood.

It is reported that Hussain is reluctant to move down the order from No 3, that his pride will not let him. Which is odd, because he did it a month ago, when his position in the one-day side (opening) had been usurped by Marcus Trescothick and Alec Stewart. Hussain slipped back in at No 6, which was unselfish, and showed a glimmer of returning form with a quick 34 against Zimbabwe.

The unselfish thing to do now would be to put himself at No 7. One of the batsmen has to go there, unless England repeat their mistake from Lord's and pick five seamers. Hussain has batted there before, against Australia in 1993. If he can't face it, he should go at No 4, with Michael Vaughan ahead of him as the third 'opener', David Boon-style. Trying to get back into form at No 3 against Curtly and Courtney is going by the North Face.

The one thing he should not do is the thing that 67 per cent of respondents to a Cricketline website poll are in favour of: dropping himself. Hussain is a cricketer of three dimensions, and the other two, the captaincy and the fielding, are in good order. His position should be safe at least until the end of the winter tour, on which his experience of Pakistan, as a winning (and run-making) A-team captain in 1995-96, will be a precious commodity.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com.

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