Hussain hopes the past is now history

The cricket will be tough enough in Pakistan but the diplomatic mission carries an extra burden for tourists
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England will arrive tomorrow in cricketing territory which may not be unknown but is barely remembered. On the other hand, previous events on tours to Pakistan may be best forgotten.

England will arrive tomorrow in cricketing territory which may not be unknown but is barely remembered. On the other hand, previous events on tours to Pakistan may be best forgotten.

Victory in the one-day or Test series this winter, almost but not quite unprecedented on this particular piece of foreign soil, can hardly be anticipated. The side's advance was dealt a timely rebuff when they capitulated to South Africa in the ICC Knockout and did everybody the favour of bringing perspective to the party.

The additional fact that England have won only two of their past 15 away series, both against New Zealand, should make it a permanent guest. What England, led by Nasser Hussain, should strive to do above all is to ensure that the cricket is hard but fair, that they acquit themselves as contenders again and that the trip is free of scandal and strife (which would be unprecedented).

Pakistan will not be at full strength following yesterday's confirmation that their express bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, will not be available because of injury. This, however, may be only a minor blip considering his recent Test form.

It is 13 years since a senior England squad went to the place which translates as Land of the Pure and demeaned the game. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issues which led to the disaffection of the team led by Mike Gatting, the response was unsavoury. The finger that England's captain wagged angrily at the umpire Shakoor Rana was the digit that rang round the world.

What an impasse it created. Pakistan have sent two senior teams to England since and England have dispatched Under-19 and A sides, but only now can it be said that full relations have been resumed. Their normality will only be known in the course of the next two months. Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, the coach whose contract has been extended to September 2003, will never feel their modi operandi are being ignored.

Unfortunately, most of the previous six England tours, starting in 1961-62, suggest that the seventh will be short neither of incident nor controversy, much of it off the pitch. This will put an added burden on England's players and officials. Not all of them, probably all too few of them, will know the history of incidents, but the need for tolerance and the knowledge that characteristics way beyond ability with bat and ball will be examined are paramount. (And, boy, the bat- and-ball thing will come under close enough scrutiny.)

Hussain has one advantage, which, if slight, should not be ignored. It was five years ago in Pakistan as captain of England A that he first confirmed he had the makings to go a step further. His side also won the Tests and one-dayers. The one Test win, incidentally, was down in no small part to a return of 6 for 39 by a leg spinner unexpectedly recalled this winter. Name of Ian Salisbury. Perhaps there were soundreasons after all.

Of course, it is an open secret that most of the England teams have felt let down by poor umpiring. Well, Pakistani teams to this country have been similarly aggrieved.

The last time England were in Pakistan, match-rigging was probably only a glint in a bookmaker's wallet. Now it is a global industry which has spawned other industries, to wit the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption unit, who will tomorrow announce terms of reference, a budget of $4m and recruitment of six staff. This will add piquancy to the journeys from Peshawar to Karachi and all points between. The tour begins with a series of three one-dayers in a week, followed by three Tests. On Gatting's tour, England won the one-dayers 3-0, though it was against a side disheartened by defeat in the World Cup semi-final only a fortnight before.

It would be a greater achievement to return a similar result this time. The defeat by South Africa, however, demonstrated that against the best-organised opposition England still have some way to go. Their batting order is fragile, the fielding lacks mobility.

Fletcher will be aware of these failings, and an absolute requirement has now been bestowed upon him to address them. Not many coaches are awarded new contracts two days after their side have been eliminated from a tournament being billed as the mini-World Cup with a performance of stunning inadequacy and naïvety unmatched by any England side since, well, since last June actually, against Zimbabwe at The Oval.

Which is not to say that Fletcher is an undeserving recipient, far from it, just that his new contract now embraces the next World Cup proper and England must evolve a side to do better than last time. That evolution may as well start in Karachi a week on Tuesday. England's top five at the Gymkhana Ground last Tuesday contained four players above 30. By 2003 they will be further above it, and whatever that does for their batting it will not do much for their fielding.

It may be heresy to muse on this considering the revitalising effect he has helped to create but the presence of Hussain in the one-day side continues to cause some imbalance. He was far from a regular choice before he assumed the captaincy, and as recently as last winter himself said that he was better off opening because of his range and weight of shots. Last week he was at No 3, the place customarily occupied by Graeme Hick, the most successful of England's one-day batsmen.

Nobody, least of all bookies, should underestimate the seriousness of one-dayers (and taking them too lightly with too little reward at stake has been the cause of their pollution) but the serious business of Tests does not start for a month. England have won only one in Pakistan, at the first time of asking in October 1961, drawing the next two to take the rubber.

They have rarely come close in 17 attempts since. Oddly enough, their best opportunity was probably in the finger-wagging Test, when Pakistan were up against it. England are not travelling without hope because the Pakistanis, for all their talent, have a poor recent Test record at home, losing four of the most recent five series.

But Hussain knows and admits that the home team are favourites. They have won five series in a row between the sides. In the summer it was said that England ended 31 years of hurt by beating West Indies. They now have the opportunity to lay to rest a further 39 years of agony.