Hussain's vision: a flash of fear in an Aussie eye

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The Independent Online

The Oval, 12 September 2005, The Ashes, Fifth Test, fifth day. Nasser Hussain has a vision. He can see it so clearly that he can almost touch it. "I'm looking forward to it, I didn't get my chance as a player. I want to be in the commentary box looking at them, McGrath, Hayden, Langer and the rest, knowing that they are the side that lost or could lose the final Test and hand the Ashes back to England.

"It's the last day, the last game, you can look into your opponents' eyes and know they're feeling the pressure as well. That's what I would like to have seen, how they reacted. I have a huge respect for these people because they do seem to pull it out, but I just want to see if on the last day at The Oval they can do it or not. I loved the confrontation and the challenge. I missed that against Australia, the chance to look in your opponents' eye and see if there was fear there. It was all over too soon."

Hussain is one of a generation of accomplished cricketers who never had a sniff of the greatest prize. Atherton, Stewart, Gough, Caddick, Fraser, Hussain: in their hands the Ashes turned to dust. But this time, 19 years since England last won them, 15 after they lost them, after eight lopsided series, there is a semblance of a chance of the balance being redressed.

Everywhere Hussain goes he is asked the same question. Before he went to South Africa to commentate on England's tour he had spent weeks doing the book-signing rounds to promote his engrossingly frank autobiography*. The first question was always the same: can England beat Australia?

Hussain's answer was unwavering too. They can, but there are several caveats. As usual, he discussed the matter with a characteristic blend of emotion and realism. That was the way he played his cricket and led the England team.

"It used to annoy me a little bit that Australians used to go on about us being mentally weak and about the baggy green cap. People were tough mentally and did care a hell of a lot. What they were simply was a better side. If you edged it to their slip cordon they'd catch it, if they edged it to ours there was a 50-50 chance. Their batsmen averaged more than 50, when the benchmark in our career was 40.

"For me it was purely in the end a cricketing thing, but I think it will be a little bit the other way now. We're getting close to having some players who on ability - Harmison, Flintoff, Vaughan - might get into their side. But the thing nobody knows is how they will cope mentally against Australia, who will go at them."

Hussain went through a list of what England must do to run Australia close. It was long, if not interminable. It included the nature of the pitches, the state of England's catching, the way England must start, the desperate need to keep key players fit and how to approach the world champions.

"I still think we need wickets that do a bit," he said. "We don't want it to become a batting contest on flat pitches with the spinners coming on, when they would win. To get 20 wickets with Gilchrist coming in at seven we need a little bit, whether it be seam or spin, not a minefield, just good cricket wickets like those we had in the West Indies last time."

Next was the personnel and the need to wrap three of England's players in cotton-wool balls: Vaughan, Harmison, Flintoff - the captain because he has done it before against Australia, the other two because they are irreplaceable.

"We lost Flintoff in the last Ashes series and Vaughan before that, but it wasn't as much as a blow then because they weren't the finished article. They are now." But this, as Hussain pointed out, is not exclusive. Australia too can be reliant on key bowlers. "These are things out of your control, but if one of their talismanic figures like Warne wasn't in the side... I know people like Kasprowicz have come in and done well, but the last time we beat them in Sydney there was no Warne, no McGrath. It's not only their ability but their charisma. The Australians seem a bit quieter without them."

But whoever plays on whatever pitches, Hussain was adamant that England must not let matters slip away early. "We can't afford not to have a good start, to stay in the series. It's no guarantee, because we had good start at Edgbaston in 1997, but people and players, whoever they are, react differently under pressure, and we need to put them under pressure going into the Fourth and Fifth Tests."

To get the start they need, England have to withstand not only Australia but history. Somebody without any sense of the latter decided to schedule the First Test at Lord's on 21 July. England have beaten Australia once there in 26 Tests since 1896 and that was in 1934, when England went on to lose the Ashes. In assessing England's chances, Hussain paid handsome tribute to Duncan Fletcher, who has infused England with toughness.

And then there are the bowlers. "As captain, I've stood and watched various England bowlers. It demands a different mindset. Australia are great players but they're bullies. When you're playing other sides, people play for their off-stump and leave the ball and you feel a million dollars. You run up and bowl the first ball of the day to Matthew Hayden and he slogs you back over your head and you think, 'Oh my God'. There's not a lot you can do as captain, you can't go up and say that was a perfectly good delivery. It's got to come from within saying, 'Right, do that again, that's just bullying'."

Hussain was impressed by England during their Champions' Trophy victory against Australia, which, while minor, may have a major impact. "I watched it closely, and saw Hayden pull Harmison for a four, then Harmison got him out and gave him a little send-off. I thought, 'Good on you, that's what you need to do'. They will go straight after Harmison and Flintoff too with the ball."

Finally, the catching. "We're getting better. It's noticeable Thorpe and Butcher are out of the slips, and we've got to have a regular short leg."

All these qualifications apart, Hussain stressed that England have become a much tougher team. And he reckoned they are a better team than the one he led. And they have been together long enough.

"I'm not in the business of making predictions, but this is our chance and we've got to take it," he said. "I will say that if the Ashes started tomorrow England are in the best possible position." On 12 September it will have been 15 years and 42 days since the Ashes were lost.

¿ Playing With Fire, by Nasser Hussain. Published by Michael Joseph, £17.99