Hussain seeks a nation's applause

Just over a year ago, Nasser Hussain left The Oval a disenchanted man. The England captain had been roundly booed by cricket supporters following his team's defeat at the hands of New Zealand. It was a desperate moment and it epitomised the depths to which cricket in this country had fallen.

Just over a year ago, Nasser Hussain left The Oval a disenchanted man. The England captain had been roundly booed by cricket supporters following his team's defeat at the hands of New Zealand. It was a desperate moment and it epitomised the depths to which cricket in this country had fallen.

But 12 months on, with a new coach and a new attitude from within the domestic game, England find themselves on the brink of ending a 31-year-old sequence of inferiority that would bring the applause of the nation. Going in to this morning's fifth and final Test with a 2-1 lead, Hussain's side cannot lose the rubber. Yet by winning or drawing the match they can do what no England side has achieved for two generations: which is to win the Wisden Trophy. Mind you, if the West Indies manage to win and so draw the series, it will be the 14th time they have retained the trophy, a record for a contest between two countries.

It is a marvellous opportunity for England who, under central contracts, have shown steady improvements and one that, if successfully negotiated, will boost the game's profile at an important time. "We've not tried to make this Test different," Hussain said yesterday, "but, in the back of my mind, the anticipation is growing. I feel that this will be a proper Test and more of a battle. I certainly think it will last more than two days."

As England only require a draw to end the one-way traffic, there might be the temptation to play for one. Not according to Hussain, who pointed out that only one of the four Tests so far have made it into a fourth day. "We've never been 2-1 up before," said Hussain, "at least not since I've been playing. But we will be trying to play to the best of our ability and go for a win."

In fact, the last time England had a lead going into the final game of a five-match series was against Australia in 1986-87 when Mike Gatting was captain. On that occasion England lost the match but won the Ashes, though Gatting's memories of that success will have been soured yesterday by his sacking as Middlesex coach. Hussain said: "Five days is a long time if the weather stays fine and both sides have bowlers who can change things around in a session. So playing for a draw is not really an option."

Taking this approach probably means England, rather than including a spinner, will place their faith in the men who won so convincingly at Headingley. As ever Hussain will not commit himself until he has had a final look at conditions this morning.

If the game does go into the fourth or fifth day the pitch's surface tends to burst, and the case for a spinner is usually pretty conclusive. Yet the West Indies' batsmen have looked so vulnerable against England's pace bowlers that dropping any of them now would be nonsensical. In any case, you would have to go back to this ground in 1991 to find an occasion where an English spinner (in this case Phil Tufnell) helped win a match against them.

This West Indies side do not have the depth of talent or experience in English conditions that their predecessors could count on. During the golden era from 1976-95, at least 70 per cent of the side would have played regular county cricket.

On this tour, only Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose have done that, while others such as Brian Lara (who played three seasons), Jimmy Adams, Sherwin Campbell and Nixon McLean (one each), can be said to have sampled the fare. Such inexperience has proved costly in this series, with the support bowlers unable to find the optimum length and leading batsmen displaying poor shot selection.

With Shivnarine Chanderpaul having gone home, and Reon King lacking form, Adams has selected the leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo. It has gone against the grain to do so, but he recently scored a hundred against Somerset and is a good fielder.

England (from): N Hussain (capt), M A Atherton, M E Trescothick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart (wkt), M P Vaughan, G A Hick, C White, A F Giles, D G Cork, A R Caddick, D Gough.

West Indies: J C Adams (capt), S L Campbell, A F G Griffith, W W Hinds, B C Lara, R R Sarwan, R D Jacobs (wkt), M V Nagamootoo, N A M McLean, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh.

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