True classic unfolds as Hussain watches helplessly

Old Trafford 2001 was the Test match with everything. There was ebb, there was flow, and there was a twist in the tail. The pitch was a beauty for the batsmen, yet 40 wickets fell. Two master batsmen scored memorable hundreds; so did two apprentices. The team that made three of these four individual centuries lost the match by more than 100 runs. The team that occupied the crease for 110 minutes longer lost out to the team that scored faster. The team that prepared diligently was beaten by the team that went to Blackpool for the day. Never mind cricket history, the match made locomotive history: it may have been the first time a bandwagon has ever been derailed by a big dipper.

Old Trafford 2001 was the Test match with everything. There was ebb, there was flow, and there was a twist in the tail. The pitch was a beauty for the batsmen, yet 40 wickets fell. Two master batsmen scored memorable hundreds; so did two apprentices. The team that made three of these four individual centuries lost the match by more than 100 runs. The team that occupied the crease for 110 minutes longer lost out to the team that scored faster. The team that prepared diligently was beaten by the team that went to Blackpool for the day. Never mind cricket history, the match made locomotive history: it may have been the first time a bandwagon has ever been derailed by a big dipper.

Two veteran fast bowlers rolled back the years, but the coup de grâce was applied by the only true spinner in the match ­ after he had toiled wicketless for 37 overs in a display of dismal defensiveness. For much of the last day, neither side seemed to have any interest in winning, but it turned out that one of them was just biding its time before working itself into a last-minute frenzy.

There were more controversies than you could shake a stick at: ball-tampering, pitch-scuffing, questions of racial affiliation, and sledging that was extreme even by today's standards. Match-fixing was mentioned, as befitted a game in which both captains had survived accusations of taking the bookmaker's rupee. It all added up to five days of glorious strokeplay, furious passions, curious umpiring and atrocious tactics. To the neutral observer, it was just about perfect ­ especially if he or she happened to be Australian.

Alec Stewart, who was generous in defeat, said that England would just have to go away and learn some lessons from the match. Lesson No 1, alas, is that Stewart's captaincy, never the strongest of his many suits, had not improved as much as we thought after Lord's. It turns out that he is a good captain on a bad pitch, but a bad one on a good pitch. When the ball is doing a lot, the fielding captain doesn't have to, and Stewart's up-and-at-'em style is fine. Once some ingenuity is required, he is still apt to switch to autopilot.

In this game he handled his bowlers indifferently when they were bowling ­ in the second innings, Matthew Hoggard was given six more overs than Darren Gough ­ and even worse when they came out to join him in the middle. While England were losing their last five first innings wickets, 32 balls were bowled, of which the captain faced four: a clear case of leading from the back.

Duncan Fletcher, with his office systems background, likes things to be clear and organised. But he and Stewart never seemed to sort out whether England were chasing their fourth innings target or not. When they were 174 for 1 in the middle of Monday afternoon, Michael Slater ­ that Australian neutral observer ­ made a prescient remark in the Channel 4 commentary box. "I really think Pakistan have a strong chance of winning this Test match still... dangerous tactic for England, playing for a draw."

That was one reason why England lost, but a five-day match is a whole tapestry of factors. Waqar Younis may have set even duller fields than Stewart but he and his colleagues bowled with more intent, twice grabbing the initiative from hopeless positions, when England were 282 for 2 and then 146 for 0. Pakistan won because they had a spinner, while England picked the perfect attack for a Headingley greentop. Pakistan won because they held more of their catches, and their tail wagged. England's top six outscored their opposite numbers in both innings (324 to 229 and 221 to 199), but the tail regressed to the hopeless rump of the pre-Fletcher era: England's bottom five made 45 in the match, to Pakistan's 244.

England fans have become so excited about Gough and Andy Caddick's feats with the ball, we have failed to notice what had happened to their batting. Gough's went to pieces some time in 1995, and has only partly recovered: even his best shot, the Caribbean cover drive, is usually sliced. Caddick, who used to be calm and collected apart from his running, is now approaching full rabbithood. His 1 and 0 at Old Trafford took him to a tally of 14 for the past two series at an average of 2, and stretched his sequence of single-figure scores to 17. He has become a Mullally or Tufnell without the element of comedy.

Caddick needs to be at No 11 on present form, and Gough at 10. So the support bowlers have to be able to bat at 8 and 9, unlike Hoggard. Alex Tudor can do it, and he surely needs only a few wickets for Surrey to push all the young Yorkshireman down the pecking order. Dominic Cork can do it, when not sawn off by no-balls, and although he got just one wicket in the match, he was the only seamer on either side who could keep the runs down bowling into the wind. Fletcher's usual policy of using bits-and-pieces players was clearly vindicated: Craig White and Ashley Giles were both missed.

But not as badly as someone else. There has been talk lately of Gough, Caddick and Graham Thorpe being world-class players. So they are on recent form, but Pakistan have their equivalents ­ Wasim, Waqar and Inzamam. It is in another department of the game that England, when picking from a full squad, are far ahead of their neighbours in the middle of the Test Championship table: captaincy. If Nasser Hussain had played at Old Trafford, England would have bowled better, set better fields, and quite possibly avoided collapsing.

We shouldn't be too harsh on his understudies. Stewart can't reasonably be expected to captain as well as keep wicket, and Nick Knight had the distinction of facing only one ball in the second innings, yet being the victim of two umpiring errors ­ lbw to a no-ball which was sailing over the stumps. Nor has Hussain quite ironed out all the inconsistencies in England's selections (on balance, the six-openers ploy was not a success). But as a tactician and man-manager, he is as big an asset as England have.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Wisden Online

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