Hussain should share the blame for England's bowling deficiencies

By Tim de Lisle
Monday 30 December 2013 03:19
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The great thing about Nasser Hussain, Darren Gough said last week, is that he is not afraid to call you a tosser. After the first Test against Sri Lanka, Hussain came close to calling all his bowlers tossers. He berated their lack of discipline and bemoaned their lack of raw pace. An hour earlier he had denied Matthew Hoggard the new ball for the first time in seven Tests and promoted Andy Flintoff from fourth seamer to partner Andy Caddick, thereby giving England the first all-Andy opening attack in their history. Indigestion? Take Andrews.

People have got to put their hands up, Hussain concluded, in one of his catchphrases. They have indeed, Nasser – and perhaps you'd like to go first. On Thursday, the day they were at their worst, the seamers were under orders to pitch the ball up. This, as Hussain revealed in his admirably candid newspaper column, was a gameplan he and Duncan Fletcher had come up with on Wednesday. By Friday morning, they had switched to gameplan B, telling the bowlers to dig it in – a tacit admission that they had misread the conditions. The evidence was there on the scoreboard: Sri Lanka made 314 for 3 when plan A was in place, and a much more reasonable 241 for 5 thereafter.

Caddick had begun the match by bowling half-volleys which barely swung at all. Hoggard, whose natural length is fullish anyway, bowled fuller still, delivering yorkers as if it was the end of a one-day game, not the start of a Test series. According to Wisden.com, England bowled 75 full-length deliveries on Thursday, or 12 overs' worth, and conceded 103 off them. Straining for swing, Caddick and Hoggard strayed on to middle and leg. That bit was their fault. But the plan was the management's, and it was a poor one. It made the attack even more samey than it was already.

Gough and Caddick go together like a horse and carriage because they are different in every way – height, trajectory, length, demeanour. Dominic Cork made a decent stand-in for Gough on the attitude front, and as expected he was the man to grab the initiative when things were drifting, but having both him and Hoggard there, and telling Caddick to bowl full, meant that there were three bowlers of similar pace all landing the ball on the same length – and playing straight into the soft hands of Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene. Caddick's forte, generating menace from what the players call back-of-a-length, was thrown away.

Hussain wasn't going to admit it, but he and Fletcher clearly compounded the problem by not playing Ashley Giles. Again, this decision was taken early – on Tuesday – which suggested it had more to do with previous Lord's pitches than this one. Hussain was probably right to argue that Giles wouldn't have taken many wickets. No bowler did – in 446.1 overs, only 21 wickets fell to the ball, and nobody with a normal action took more than three. But Giles could have been the stock bowler, keeping the runs down and allowing the seamers to deliver shorter, sharper spells from the other end.

As it was, only Flintoff offered any economy on the first day. And the last thing England want, at the start of an unprecedentedly punishing year, is to use one of their few thoroughbreds as a workhorse. It wasn't as if they needed to play only four bowlers. As so often, the strategy of stuffing the batting backfired: in the first innings England's bottom five, including Flintoff and Alec Stewart, made 32 between them.

The match was more encouraging for Hussain on other fronts. In the first home Test of the post-Atherton era, England mounted a rearguard of Athertonian proportions. They clearly rattled Sanath Jayasuriya, who choked when on top, setting hopelessly defensive fields and dropping two slip catches.

Hussain batted beautifully in both innings, and he might well have matched Michael Vaughan's feat of making a hundred and a fifty in the match had it not been for Daryl Harper, who was busy confirming the suspicion that the new élite panel of umpires could actually lower standards in England's home Tests.

England's top order has quietly raised its game in the past year. Since May 2001, Hussain has averaged 46, rather than 34 as he did before; Mark Butcher 44 rather than 25; Vaughan 44 rather than 27; and Graham Thorpe 53 rather than 40. That's 61 extra runs each time they bat. Only Marcus Trescothick, the sole ever-present, has remained becalmed (on 37). In this match, more encouragingly still, they put together several partnerships. Vaughan and Hussain put on 106, Vaughan and Trescothick (surpassing their previous seven opening stands in one go) 168, and Butcher and Hussain 169.

For the spectator, Sod's Law ruled. Just as the England and Wales Cricket Board woke up to the need to court the under-16s, Mick Hunt laid on a pitch designed to put them to sleep. If England hadn't conjured up a collapse on Saturday, the game would have been like the film in "Life On Mars" – a saddening bore. The conventional word for this kind of pitch is good. A more accurate one would be dismal.

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