Hussain's day goes pair-shaped

Fifth Test: Captain's form a worry but his alliance with Fletcher has paved the way for a summer of content

England's new leaders met for the first time backstage a few minutes before they were paraded in public. The rehearsal went as well as could have been expected.

England's new leaders met for the first time backstage a few minutes before they were paraded in public. The rehearsal went as well as could have been expected.

Duncan Fletcher, the coach, said that he and Nasser Hussain, the captain, seemed to think along the same lines. Tell us the old, old story, muttered the sceptics - and not all of them under their breath.

Fletcher had to be given the benefit of the doubt, however, because nobody wanted to be rude to England's first foreign coach and everybody wanted to believe he was speaking something nearer the truth than utter balderdash. Fletcher was right.

They have forged an alliance, these two, Hussain and Fletcher. They have worked well together with a common purpose. They have taken England on to the next stage, the point at which they not only believe what they are saying but their listeners might start to as well.

West Indies are weak and dispirited but the team led by Hussain and inspired equally by Fletcher are about to beat them in a series for the first time in 31 years for goodness' sake. Ah, the days of wine and roses. But it will not always be like this. Will they know, or will they need to be told if the unthinkable has to be broached?

With his second duck of the match yesterday Hussain is fast closing in on the longest sequence of innings for an England captain without a fifty. He is on 13, behind his two most recent predecessors, Alec Stewart (16) and Michael Atherton (19), so he can reflect that it did them no harm. But the longer this goes on the greater the conundrum will become.

England's revival, albeit in an impermanent state at present, has been heartening and based on two relationships: the conjoining of central and contracts is one, the linking of Hussain with Fletcher the other. The first has allowed the second to run the team on the lines they would wish, it has permitted the members to feel they are indeed a team and not merely playing for their place for the next game.

The affinity between coach and captain is not new - Atherton and David Lloyd had boundless mutual respect - but it is based on happenstance. You may like to believe that in hiring them the England Management Advisory Committee had taken into account their characters and how they might complement each other, but you would be daft. They shook hands at Lord's one July morning and hit it off immediately.

The two men do not live in each other's pockets, they have a healthy mutual respect, they are compatible enough to take the rise out of each other. Most importantly, they have got their team working for them. Neither has talked England up needlessly: that has been left to those who will knock them down if they lose again.

Their strategy has been aimed at securing a settled side. There was no point in rushing this; had they wished to they could not have done. Fletcher might have had experience as coach of Glamorgan but he readily conceded that he had no intimate knowledge of many of the candidates for England places.

How he has got to know them, while allowing the captain to cement his own relationship with them. The side has taken its time to assemble and it has not all been the result of careful planning. Craig White has attained heights this summer that could not have been imagined, but remember he was but a replacement for the one-day squad last winter. That is where Fletcher revealed himself. He spotted something in White that made him a part of this side.

He and his partner were similarly fortunate with Marcus Trescothick, the other discovery of 2000. He, too, was a replacement in a one-day team who took his chance. Maybe, then, Fletcher and Hussain are lucky. What a key weapon that is in the sporting armoury.

It should be pointed out that they have not gone for youth in fashioning this future. England's average age at The Oval for the decisive Test is 30 years and 10 months, the average age of their winter touring party is more than 29. They must be sure they leave a legacy and the A team they have yet to pick for the West Indies, a trip yet to be confirmed, is an important one. It is hard to believe that Fletcher has not thought of this.

He never played Test cricket because Zimbabwe were not a Test nation when he was an all-rounder of some distinction, he does not interfere, he does not raise his voice, he makes players feel good about themselves. If he and Hussain contrive in analysing opposition weakness and stressing England's strengths Fletcher withdraws when the match starts. He is the quietest man in the dressing-room.

They are already talking of extending his contract which runs until the end of the Ashes series next summer. Preliminary (official) talks on this will not take place until the end of the Pakistan tour and before that to Sri Lanka begins in late January. Of course, it might still be wise to wait until Australia have been and gone.

The captaincy has transformed Hussain. There was plenty of evidence before he assumed the position that he was a maturing individual who had dampened the wildfire of his youth without extinguishing the flame that drives him. He has been an attacking captain.

The long apprenticeship with England as a player probably served him well. He knows what it is like to be dropped. But he has undoubtedly been well-served by meeting Fletcher, whose quiet shrewdness has enabled him to concentrate on what matters. What will matter shortly is runs and where his next one is coming from.

Thirty-one years is a long time, the next one could be longer still with series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka away, Pakistan and then Australia and the Ashes at home. Curb the celebrations. Whisper it, don't shout it. But this captain and this coach may be the ones to take England places. It is a long way from Lord's 15 months ago.

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