Hussain seeks fast track to success

The Indian winter: England faced with task of gelling the old with the new on demanding tour
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The Independent Online

As captain of England, Nasser Hussain is considered such an important figure that a metal detector surrounds his hotel-room door. So far, nothing has set it off, but with England's first match of the tour today against the Mumbai (Bombay) President's XI, you get the impression he would rather it helped detect the mettle within his inexperienced squad than anything that might be smuggled inside a club sandwich.

If the situation looks bleak, Hussain says his green team are under no pressure to win the series. "If we can stay in the game, and our inexperienced side do well, then the pressure is on India," said the captain yesterday.

Hussain's predicament might also fulfil a case of from little acorns do big oaks grow, and the team unveiled over the coming weeks may just turn out to be the one, give or take a few senior players, to serve England for a good few years to come.

For that notion to take root, England must give a good account of themselves against Sachin Tendulkar and Co. It will not be easy, and the management committee, comprising Hussain, Duncan Fletcher, Marcus Trescothick and Ashley Giles, have just eight days' cricket to sort the nuggets from the lodestone before the First Test begins in Mohali on 3 December. Even though rain is unlikely, it is still not long for players barely known to Hussain and the coach to get into their stride and state their case for inclusion.

"I have a good idea what my best side for the Tests might be, but there are players I still don't know that well," admitted Hussain yesterday. "The first time I faced Richard Dawson was in the nets on Thursday, and other than in the last Test against the Aussies, I still haven't seen a lot of James Ormond. To be fair, some of the individuals don't know themselves that well yet, but I'm working with them all the time, trying to get a handle on how they're thinking, especially the bowlers."

A plain-speaking graduate, Dawson's off-spin comes with a whirl in his action that uses shoulder more than wrist or fingers. In fact, with his tall willowy frame, he looks like an animated version of Graeme Hick, who, with eight wickets, was England's leading wicket-taker in the last Test series here in 1992-93.

A comparison that damns Dawson with the faintest of praise, it is telling that none of the great off-spinners in recent memory have relied on an action where late adjustments appear difficult. With Giles still hors de combat, as he nurses the spring back into his Achilles tendon, Dawson is likely to get an opportunity before Martyn Ball, the replacement for Robert Croft.

With no one in the squad having played a Test in India before, it is not just the new boys who have to find their feet. "Virtually anything anyone has done in their career so far has no bearing on what happens out here," said Hussain. "It will be all about those who adapt quickest to the conditions." Like pinpricks, there are a hundred little things to distract you from your game plan in India. Raucous crowds, smog-ridden air and pitches that mysteriously appear to change back and forth to suit the home side can all niggle away. Hussain reckons the decisive cricket in the series will be 98 per cent technique and two per cent mind games, though here the latter figure always feels more. Shutting it out is the key, something the skipper, with his current aura of calm, appears to have managed for the moment.

Unsurprisingly, much succour is being taken from last winter's successes in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But several factors differ, not least the absence of Darren Gough, Alec Stewart and Andrew Caddick. Together, they formed an experienced core whose sole remnants are Hussain and Graham Thorpe.

Fortunately, Trescothick and Michael Vaughan can fill the breach, with Trescothick the man awarded the responsibility of taking over the captaincy should Hussain have to absent himself. With his composed batting, Vaughan is expected to replace Michael Atherton as Trescothick's opening partner. Over the long term such a move makes sense, but for this series England may be better utilising Mark Butcher while the ball is hard and being propelled by pace bowlers.

The left-handed Butcher, who scored a match-winning 173 against Australia last summer, would play the spinners far better with 30 runs under his belt. Coming in at three, he could easily face them from the outset, which is not his forte.

Vaughan, too, might prosper down at six, where he could bat with his Yorkshire team-mates, Dawson and Craig White. With neither side allowed to extend their first innings beyond 90 overs in today's two-day match, the batting order, should England lose the toss on a damp, grassy pitch, would surely reveal Hussain and Fletcher's thinking on the matter.

According to the curator of the Wankhede stadium, where today's game is taking place, fast bowlers will flourish. If true, Hussain may be left guessing as to which of his pace bowlers might eke more from the benign conditions expected once the Tests start.

The home side, although at the start of their season, have five players with Test experience available, though Vinod Kambli, whose last innings against England on this ground realised over 200 runs, could miss out due to a skin infection.

Captained by pace bowler Paras Mhambrey, who toured England with India five years ago, the home side include the best local talent available outside of a Bollywood studio, a factor that should help fast-track England's preparations by providing them with meaningful opposition.