Hussain's long hunt for a short answer

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The Independent Online

At last, England have a clue about one-day cricket again. At last, they are treating it as a friend who is welcome any time, a distant friend but a friend for all that, rather than as a grubby interloper who has to be tolerated.

This is a huge leap of faith to have made and, unless he wins the Ashes, it may come to be seen as the most important legacy of Nasser Hussain's captaincy. It does not, of course, mean that England will win the World Cup next year in South Africa, or necessarily qualify for the second stage.

But this winter in Zim-babwe, India and New Zealand has demonstrated that the days of hopelessness are over. It is possible that of the thousands of questions Hussain has faced since last October, none was as unexpected or gave him as much pleasure as the one served at him in the wake of defeat to New Zealand last week.

It was: "Are England a better Test side than a one-day side?" Six months ago, despite ignominious defeat in the Ashes Tests, it could not have been asked without serious concerns being expressed about the questioner's sanity. As far as one-dayers were concerned, to borrow one of the favourite phrases of their coach, Duncan Fletcher, England had not come to the party.

It was an attitude buried in history. Sure, England had taken part in the first one-day international of all, sure they had staged the first three World Cups, sure they had reached the semi-finals of the first five. But they were never innovators. England saw it only as an ancillary to the real thing: Test cricket.

Hussain weighed the question that was asked of him in Dunedin and said: "Depends which side turns up." But he was playing for time, he knew the real answer all right. "I'm pleased you asked. A few months ago people would have said you have done well in Tests, but your one-day cricket has been dreadful." He did not quite add it but he probably knew that as far as South Africa 2003 is concerned there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. This may sound harsh: England have played three consecutive away series in Zimbabwe, India and New Zealand and won 5-0, drawn 3-3 and lost 3-2.

In the first of these series they demonstrated a heartening willingness to take advantage of opposition weak- nesses, and in the next two impressed all observers with their team ethos by coming from 3-1 and 2-0 behind. But Hussain and Fletcher are not deceived.

They were not deliberately trying to underplay their side's chances when they talked of being in the second group behind Australia and South Africa and having to aspire to New Zealand's first-rate fielding standards. (And neither of them mentioned the breathtaking flair and drive of Sri Lanka.) Hussain pointed to two glaring shortcomings.

"We are a bit sloppy in the field, with good days and bad days," he said. "We take some good catches and drop some catches. If we're going to compete we've got to do better. And the last 15 overs of an innings while batting have been poor. Even when we've kept wickets in hand we haven't hit enough boundaries. There is a point when you have to take on short boundaries, take risks, and we haven't quite managed it yet." He might also have mentioned his own batting at No 3, but it seems clear that this will not alter.

England also have to resolve – and pretty quickly – what on earth they are going to do about their wicketkeeper. Having plumped for James Foster, a risk greater than any wild shot that could be played in the last 15 overs, they might now be backtracking.

Foster, a 21-year-old of promise who is far from the finished article, missed the last four one-dayers in New Zealand. He was tired, he had missed one catch too many. But it would be foolhardy to continue in the position with Marcus Tres- cothick. The veteran Alec Stewart must have looked on and thought there could still be room for him. Since this will assuredly not make the difference between England winning the 2003 World Cup and losing it, they had better resist the notion.

England's biggest advance is that they have a team who like each other and like playing one-day cricket again. In time, they maycome to think of their own one-day ideas. The trouble with having treated the short form so disdainfully is that you tend to be still trying to put in effect the innovation before last, not the latest one.

The squad that disbanded in Dunedin on Wednesday should not be tampered with too much before next March. Fletcher, especially, has made much of experience. If he and the selectors stick with the squad that lost last week – bearing in mind that Andrew Caddick and Michael Vaughan would surely be in any England team taking a realistic view of advancing in the World Cup – that would not be a reasonable excuse.

Nine of the team who play England's first game in South Africa could have played 50 one-dayers. Ability, not experience, will be the key. And New Zealand, among others, may have more of both.