Hussain gains respect

Second Test: Collective effort that drove England to victory at Edgbaston sets up perfect opportunity for series triumph; Simon O'Hagan praises the Essex batsman who has claimed the No3 slot
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The Independent Online
England's new-found emphasis on the collective - nowhere more evident than in their fielding - is the difference between the team that have quickly gained the upper hand over India this summer and that which fell apart during the winter. But it is still a game about individuals, and no analysis of the First Test can fail to conclude that it was the contribution of one man, Nasser Hussain, which swung the match decisively England's way.

Largely as a result of Hussain's maiden Test hundred, England can go into the Second Test, starting at Lord's on Thursday, knowing that victory would give them their first series win since they beat New Zealand two years and five series ago, and only their second since winning in New Zealand in 1991-92.

Premature though it would be to think that England have now solved the problem that has long since beset them at No3, Hussain's performance, in his first Test back after an absence of three years, was enormously heartening for many reasons.

On a personal level, it marked the undoubted arrival on the big stage of a man who has always had the talent but has not always had the breaks. It rewarded a player who has never stopped seeking answers to the technical and mental problems that batting has presented. And it must be hoped that it buried for ever the idea - based on a couple of dressing-room spats when he was younger - that Hussain was still having difficulty growing up.

As far as the team are concerned, the importance of having an established, dominant No3 cannot be over-stated, and the growing authority with which Hussain accumulated his runs underlined his potential to become the best in that position for a long time.

England No3s do not score hundreds very often. The last before Hussain's was by Gatting in Australia in 1994-95, 24 innings previously. There have been only five in 103 England innings since David Gower's 157 not out in the Third Test of the 1990 series against India. During this period no fewer than eight Englishmen have found a hundred beyond them when batting at No3: Allan Lamb, Wayne Larkins, Mike Atherton, John Crawley, Robin Smith, Jason Gallian, Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash. The average for England No3s makes even worse reading: 29.33 over the six years, down to 17.04 for the period between Gatting's hundred and Hussain's hundred.

According to Keith Fletcher, Hussain's coach at Essex and a former manager and captain of England, a No3 batsman requires, first and foremost, "sound technique in stopping the ball". Then he must have the ability to play in different ways depending on the circumstances and the conditions. In both these respects, Fletcher believes, Hussain is admirably equipped to make the England No3 spot his own for many years to come.

"Technically he's a better player now than when he last played for England," Fletcher said last week. "He always had a tendency to open the face of the bat, but now he keeps the bat a lot squarer. Perhaps it came from limited overs cricket, where you're always looking to run the ball away for a single.

"Mentally he's stronger too. I've talked to him a lot about preparing to bat, working out where are the safe areas to get runs and which areas to avoid. That was what pleased me about his hundred for England. It was played with regard to the context of the match. Sometimes you have to change your game, and it's not every player who can. What I've always liked about Nasser is he won't give his wicket away, and that's something that other people who've played for England have tended to do. He can bring a bit of steel to the England team, and possibly we haven't had that in the past."

At 28, Hussain needs to nail down his England place once and for all. Had things worked out differently, it could have been him running the show rather than Atherton. Hussain is the younger by five days and they grew up together on the England Young Cricketers' tour of Sri Lanka in 1986-87 and during the early days of the England A team. As it is, Hussain's impressive captaincy of England A in Pakistan last winter has had people talking about him as a possible successor to Atherton - although since Hussain has no advantage in terms of age, it is hard to see how that could happen unless Atherton's form deserted him completely.

For the moment Hussain will be happy just to be named today in what is expected to be an unchanged squad for Lord's, fitness doubts over Nick Knight and John Crawley notwithstanding. That is not to say that the overall position is clear-cut. Fast bowling remains an area of some uncertainty. Although Alan Mullally took five wickets at Edgbaston, the selectors would have liked to see more movement from him through the air. Whether Ronnie Irani amounts to a serious bowling proposition at Test level is a matter that needs addressing. Meanwhile, Darren Gough is heading back to contention, as is Andrew Caddick.

A Lord's wicket that will be of more even bounce than Edgbaston's - it could hardly be less even - may not reward the faster bowlers quite so readily. If that were the case it would be nice if Min Patel were given scope to attack rather than merely contain India's batsmen. Their present vulnerability - Sachin Tendulkar excepted, of course - is the main reason why England ought to make it two wins out of two.

Probable 13: Atherton, Knight, Hussain, Thorpe, Hick, Irani, Russell, Lewis, Cork, Patel, Mullally, Crawley, Martin.