Stewart refuses to stand in for Hussain

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The Independent Online

England's selectors will not be turning to Alec Stewart to captain England in Nasser Hussain's absence, after the England captain's broken finger ruled him out of the second Test at Lord's in nine day's time. Stewart, who stood in for Hussain after the England skipper broke his thumb against Pakistan in May, has ruled himself out of doing the job again.

"The advice we have had from the specialist is that the fracture is stable and Nasser's finger will be in a splint until next Monday," the England physiotherapist Dean Conway said.

"He should be able to start mobilizing the joint thereafter but the specialist's initial thoughts are that he will be out of cricket for around three weeks." Stewart, who lost the captaincy to Hussain two years ago, said in a diary he writes for a cricket website that he felt it was time to move on.

"I wouldn't take the job back if it was offered," he was quoted as saying. "I did it at Old Trafford and in the one-day series to help the side out in an emergency.

"I've been captain and done everything that has been asked of me but I think it is better to look to the future. It is going to be a tough summer and I want to give myself the best chance of doing well for England as batsman and keeper." His decision, which comes just days after Lord Condon presented his report on Stewart to the England and Wales Cricket Board, could be seen by some as pre-emptive. Yet Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, has long maintained that if there was any suspicion of impropriety by an England player he would be dropped from playing, let alone the captaincy.

Stewart's leadership qualities are another matter. Under his captaincy England did not cover themselves with glory, losing the second Test against Pakistan and all six one-day internationals in the NatWest series.

With Stewart not in the running, the choices boil down to looking back or forward, with Michael Atherton firmly in the first category and Marcus Trescothick, earmarked already as a possible successor to Hussain, in the second. Otherwise only Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher have fleeting experience of the job.

Tossing Trescothick in at the deep end, just as he has learnt what is required to open the batting against the Aussies, would be foolish. As he already has one big job to do he does not need another, not this soon, and not against these opponents.

Atherton, by contrast, has at least been here before, though last time he was offered the stand-in job, when Hussain was injured in 1999, his response and reasons were similar to Stewart's this time. All he would say yesterday, before he went off fishing, was that he "hadn't thought about it." A cussed soul, who gave a lot of effort to the captaincy, Atherton is playing his last Ashes series. Another Test as captain, especially with England 1-0 down, will surely appeal to the romantic as well as the team man in him, and, should England require his services in their hour of need, he would surely accept the job.

The return of an eminent figure like Atherton to the captaincy would continue the parallels being drawn between the famous 1981 Ashes series and the current one, when Mike Brearley returned to lead an England side reeling from the double-whammy of losing a captain and the first Test.

History, though, can only explain, never cure, and England initially went behind at Edgbaston because Darren Gough and Andy Caddick did not make the most of some helpful seam bowling conditions on the second morning. Another specialist, rather than Craig White, who prefers bare skiddy pitches found abroad, could well have curtailed Australia's ambitions of racing into a big lead.

As a contracted player, the obvious choice for a third bowler would be Matthew Hoggard, though he has a suspected stress fracture of the foot. If he is injured, the selectors need to look at Alan Mullally, James Ormond or Alex Tudor, the last among the runs as well.

Yet, whatever England do to bolster the squad, Australia will not be losing a wink of sleep over it. Lead by their sinew-tough captain, Steve Waugh, and prepared by an analytical coach, John Buchanan, the tourists know that their confidence is backed by a plethora of statistical facts that will make England supporters shudder when compared with England's finest.

The first is that the Australian team that took the field at Edgbaston totals 21 Ashes centuries. In contrast, England's batsman there had made four, though, if Thorpe had played, that figure would have risen to seven. The bowling, if slightly better matched, does not share the same depth as Australia's.

Yet there is a faint glimmer of hope, providing England can sustain pressure for longer than the odd session. Australia's recent approach to Test matches may have blurred the edges between five and one-day cricket of which they are both champions, but it is not without risk.

Awesome though Australia's cricket in the first Test was, it is up to England and whoever captains them at Lord's, to increase the factor of those risks and take the chances that result.