England given fresh hope by Hussain

FIRST TEST: Vice-captain survives early scare to compile his third Test century of the year and put home side on the defensive
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Zimbabwe 376; England 306-4

It took the arrival of the Guti, a chill wind uncannily reminiscent of a May day at Derby, as well as the more timely intervention of an unbeaten century from Nasser Hussain, to convince England that their inexperienced opponents are not infallible when cool heads and straight bats are pitted against them. If more of the same sang-froid is applied until teatime today, England could well be in the unusual position of winning an overseas Test match, something they have not achieved since the Adelaide Test almost two years ago.

Fortunes can swiftly change when significant breaks begin to go your way. Hussain, whose third three-figure score for England took just over five hours, was let off first ball when short-leg spilt a sharp chance as he shaped to flick Strang to midwicket.

Momentarily shaken, it was a reprieve that brought the best from the Essex man, whose patient innings and unbroken stand of 126 with John Crawley, have resurrected England's prospects of a positive result - a situation not widely foreseen at the start of play when Ladbrokes' odds against an England win stood at 20-1.

A combative and emotional character, England's vice-captain was in no doubts as to what the milestone meant to him, and how it fitted in with England's plans for the remainder of this match.

"It's a huge moment in my life as any hundred for England is," he said after a cool, drizzly day's play had finished in sunshine. "The slowness of the pitch and the way they just sat in the game and spread their fields out, meant you were never going to smack a hundred. You've got to grind it and that's what I did today.

"We've now got to try and bat for at least two sessions and get a lead. Then let's see what they are like batting under a bit of pressure for once."

It is a compelling thought and on yesterday's evidence alone, Zimbabwe's cricket still appears to be some way from being fully formed, with much of the finishing touches being operated in a charmingly DIY manner.

For instance, instead of the revolving sightscreens that double as advertising boards on many established Test grounds around the world, the screens here at the Queen's club have fixed adverts behind the bowlers arm which are then alternately revealed and covered up by a man drawing and opening a set of white curtains.

The bowling - when shorn of Paul Strang - is almost as quaint and lacks depth, being little better than an average county attack. True, the highly regarded Heath Streak is clearly short of fitness, and Eddo Brandes' outswing was badly missed, but on a sluggish pitch like this, only Strang's leg-spin looked capable of moving the game forward for Zimbabwe.

He is not quite ready to keep company with Shane Warne or Mushtaq Ahmed, but on a day when little pressure was exerted by his colleagues bowling at the other end, he ran them a close third, taking 3 for 83, with 35 overs of business-class leg-spin.

Nick Knight despite his 56 appeared completely flummoxed by his googly, and Alec Stewart, eventually sawn off by a poor umpiring decision, was never quite at ease with his bag of tricks.

With Graham Thorpe continuing his sketchy tour with a scrappy 13 before edging a perfectly pitched googly to slip, England found themselves at 180 for 4 but Hussain and Crawley then composed their telling reply.

As individuals, they are England's best players of spin, though for quite differing reasons. Hussain does not read the wrist-spun ball quite as early as Crawley, whose rotary skills, as tested by the striated turntable of Dr Ken West, an American eye specialist, have made him particularly fluent at reading a turning ball.

Hussain's strength lies not so much in vision, but in the ball-bearing flexibility of his wrists, whose ability to ride and compensate the vagaries in turn and bounce, make up for other shortcomings, such as an occasionally stiff front leg.

Having initially helped themselves to some particularly wayward seam bowling from Streak and Henry Olonga, both batsmen were later forced into playing watchful innings, as Alistair Campbell, Zimbabwe's captain, spread his fields and went on the defensive.

It was an obstacle not presented to the earlier batsman, who were fed a succession of "hit me" balls from the pace bowlers. Knight, in particular, was savage towards anything directed short and wide outside his off stump (of which there was plenty).

In a flurry of cuts and carves, he rapidly made his way to his half-century, before Olonga cleverly got a slower ball to swing late into the left-hander's pads. It was the faster bowlers' sole success on a day that England at last showed some class.

Bulawayo scoreboard

Third day; Zimbabwe won toss

ZIMBABWE - First Innings 376 (A Flower 112, A D R Campbell 84).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 48 for 1)

N V Knight lbw b Olonga 56

(105 min, 79 balls, 9 fours)

A J Stewart lbw b P Strang 48

(149 min, 123 balls, 8 fours)

N Hussain not out 101

(312 min, 244 balls, 13 fours)

G P Thorpe c Campbell b P Strang 13

(27 min, 23 balls, 3 fours)

J P Crawley not out 51

(183 min, 153 balls, 7 fours)

Extras (b4, lb2, w1, nb14) 21

Total (for 4, 419 min, 108 overs) 306

Fall (cont): 2-92 (Knight), 3-160 (Stewart), 4-180 (Thorpe).

To bat: R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, C E W Silverwood, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Streak 23-6-52-0 (nb8) (6-2-11-0, 3-1-21-0, 6-2-8-0, 3-0-7-0, 5-1-5-0); B Strang 17-5-54-0 (nb2) (5-0-21-0, 5-0-22-0, 7-5-11-0); P Strang 37-10-83-3 (14-4-25-1, 20-6-46-2, 3-0-12-0); Olonga 17-1-72-1 (nb7, w1) (1-0-10-0, 6-1-22-1, 5-0-24-0, 5-0-16-0); Whittall 7-2-19-0; G Flower 7-3-20-0 (one spell each).

Progress: 50: 63 min, 15.5 overs. 100: 116 min, 27.5 overs. Lunch: 128- 2 (Stewart 29, Hussain 12) 43 overs. 150: 196 min, 47.1 overs. 200: 261 min, 65.2 overs. Tea: 231-4 (Hussain 61, Crawley 19) 76 overs. 250: 323 min, 85 overs. New ball: Taken at 261-4 after 88 overs. 300: 405 min, 104.2 overs.

Umpires: R S Dunne and I D Robinson.