The 24 hours that rescued Hussain

Exclusive: How selection delay bought precious time as ex-captain's tour place came under threat
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Nasser Hussain was almost dropped for the tour of the West Indies. The former captain's place was the subject of close scrutiny and prolonged debate by the four-man select-ion panel before the squad was finally announced last week after a delay of 24 hours.

A proposal to include the Middlesex batsman Andrew Strauss was eventually defeated, and the discussion was resolved in Hussain's favour. But it is an indication of divisions among the selectors not only concerning Hussain but about the direction of the team. The 15 players eventually named on Wednesday were the same 15 originally named for the first part of the winter last September.

Hussain, 35, had a lean run on the tour of Sri Lanka, while Strauss, 26, who was given his England one-day debut on the tour, has impressed with his rich promise and correct method. Although the need to check on injuries to bowlers was given as the cause of the postponement of the touring party's announce-ment, it also allowed further pondering on Hussain and the final batting place.

David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, who would be entitled to a casting vote, said that there had been discussions on all the batting places as well as the whole team in general.

"There was a healthy debate, as there frequently is," he said. "You wouldn't expect four people all to have the same idea of the right party, and somebody is sometimes not going to get their way. Of course, this can sometimes upset people. Both Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe were certainly discussed, but then they would be."

The squads for the Test and one-day series were selected by telephone. Graveney orchestrated calls between his home near Bristol and his fellow selectors: the coach, Duncan Fletcher who was at his home in Cape Town; the National Academy director, Rod Marsh, who was in Adelaide; and the former England all-rounder Geoff Miller, at his home in Chesterfield.

There had already been reports that Graveney had fallen out with Fletcher over selection for the final Test in Sri Lanka. It was suggested that Graveney was keen to include Robert Croft, the off-spinner who has since retired from international cricket, in place of Gareth Batty.

But Graveney poured scorn on the reports. "It would be utterly wrong of me to try to influence selection of the team from thousands of miles away and I wouldn't seek to try," he said. "I speak to the tour management regularly, almost every day, and I gauge the mood and can make suggestions, but it would be quite ridiculous to say who should be in the team from what I have seen on television."

But if coach and captain effectively decide the team on the ground, it is the panel who select the squad. Fletcher obviously has an influential voice, but the other three watch far more domestic cricket, so when newcomers are involved he has to listen to them.

Hussain scored 46 runs in four innings in Sri Lanka, but was far more successful against Bangladesh in the earlier part of the trip. It was always likely after he resigned the captaincy that he would need to score runs frequently to hold on to his place, but Fletcher publicly backed him at the end of the Third Test in Colombo, which England lost heavily.

Disagreements among selectors are inevitable, especially when teams are losing. But this dispute again highlights the composition of the panel. England's coach (and sometimes the captain, too) has traditionally been a selector. In Australia, many of whose methods, such as a National Academy, English cricket is slavishly determined to follow, the four-man panel comprises four former Test players. The coach and captain are given their squad.

Graveney, chairman for nearly seven years, said: "A balance always has to be found in selection between picking a squad for the next match and an eye on the future. These two things do not always go hand in hand.

"There were injury doubts concerning several of the bowlers, and I heard on Monday that Richard Johnson would need a knee operation and be unavailable. But it is often a good thing to have a period of reflection after the first meeting. Coming back together again after everybody has had a chance to mull over things like the balance of the squad is a good thing to do, I think.

"As well as the selectors being involved we spoke to Michael Vaughan and paid full regard to his opinions. He is the captain who has to lead the team out. I act, as I did in this case, as a sort of middleman and collect individual views."

The announcement, and the postponement, put English cricket in a woeful light, and the word shambles was frequently used. Nobody has yet been able to explain why, if injuries were the cause, nobody was monitoring them better. When this newspaper asked to speak to the England Wales Cricket Board's medical officer, Dr Peter Gregory, to discuss which particular injuries he had been concerned about, it was Graveney who responded.

The injury to the chairman of selectors himself did not help. Graveney had operations on both knees in Dec-ember, which prevented him going to Sri Lanka and meeting Fletcher as planned. The intention had been to announce the West Indies squad then.

There has always appeared to be an uneasy relationship between Graveney and Fletcher, though the chairman has always been at pains to say what a superb coach Fletcher is. They have decided, quite rightly, that there must be collective responsibility in commenting on the latest squad.

But Hussain will know how close he came to being ousted so soon after his emotional reign as captain ended. It may have been the fact that he has one of only eight central contracts that saved him. The selectors would have looked extremely foolish if they had omitted him and still had to pay him £125,000 for his year's work.

But Hussain will feel the heat in the Caribbean in every way. So will Fletcher and the other selectors.

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