English selectors left with an impossible task

NASSER HUSSAIN stepped off a golf course in Port Elizabeth unsure about his next move, even though he knew that England had been knocked out of the World Cup by a seasonal rainstorm in Bulawayo.

TED CORBETTTED CORBETT

NASSER HUSSAIN stepped off a golf course in Port Elizabeth unsure about his next move, even though he knew that England had been knocked out of the World Cup by a seasonal rainstorm in Bulawayo.

By the time he walked into a Press Conference 15 minutes later he had made up his mind. He would quit as one-day captain and continue to lead the England Test side.

It was a typically all-in-a-moment Hussain decision, although he had been thinking through his move for the last two months. He knew that, at 35 and labouring to make runs quickly in one-day internationals, he was past his sell-by date. A more detailed analysis might have made him think again.

We have been watching Hussain act in this way throughout his four-year tenure as captain. He will signal to one paceman to prepare to bowl the next over and then, four balls later, shift to another. Choice No. 2 has little time to loosen up and often performs at less than perfect pitch.

This latest Hussain decision has left the England selectors with an impossible task. He says that he wants to continue as England captain, to play in 100 Tests — at the moment his total is 81 — and no doubt he has half an eye on Mike Atherton's record of 54 outings in charge. At the moment he has led England in 42 Tests and another 19 as captain will not only see him reach his own target but comfortably past Atherton.

There is nothing wrong with this ambition and so long as it is working well for England there can be no quarrel with his decision. The selectors seem willing to fall in with his idea but what happens to the one-day team in the two years it will take Hussain to achieve his 100 Test caps?

It can be used to groom a new Test captain; but trying to find the right man is as difficult as tracking down The Scarlet Pimpernel, Osama bin Laden or the secret of perpetual motion.

Michael Vaughan, now clearly one of the finest batsmen in the world and likely to be at his peak in two years' time, is the bookmakers' favourite. He is a diffident man, some say shy and some suggest lacking in the steel that makes a leader. Since Hussain's announcement Vaughan has appeared unwilling to commit himself wholeheartedly and there are plenty of people around who suggest that he needs more experience. Or that the captaincy would take away his batting.

He will certainly not gain experience with his county Yorkshire who have appointed Anthony McGrath as captain because Darren Lehmann is so heavily involved with Australia. Besides, how much cricket can Vaughan expect to play for Yorkshire in the next few years?

He will, like Atherton and Hussain, have to go through his learning curve on the international field, under the spotlight of a media who will be only too willing to point out his mistakes and pitted against captains who know the scene from A to Z.

Vaughan is the only logical choice, but mainly because he is the one player certain of an England place.

Marcus Trescothick has lost much of his once solid support this winter when he made a poor fist of leading England, in the absence of Hussain, against Australia A in Hobart and then could not find his way round a table of Duckworth-Lewis figures as England strove for victory against Namibia. He kept declaring that the figures show England were in front even though there was a long spell when rain would have brought victory to Namibia.

That match against the feeblest of non-Test countries might have been seen as an ideal training ground for either Vaughan or Trescothick but the coach Duncan Fletcher nominated Alec Stewart instead. That is hardly a great commendation for the future.

Now Trescothick declares that after five months on tour he cannot bear to think about cricket which must make the selectors think that he is not tough enough for a job that requires 100 per cent attention all the time. This winter he has hardly been a success as a batsman either.

Five Tests brought only 261 runs at 26.10 and 17 one-day games an acceptable but hardly daunting 551 runs at 32.41.

Adam Hollioake, the strong-minded, Australian-born, English-educated Surrey captain is a runner too and for two years he may be just the man they need, even though he has been dragged round Australia and South Africa for two months without being selected once, in a way which reminds me of Atherton's experience in India immediately before he was made England captain.

Vaughan and Trescothick would obtain the necessary experience, England would surely not lose any more games than they did under Hussain — 28 wins, 27 defeats — and half way to the next World Cup it ought to be possible to find the basis of a winning side.

Hollioake is not good enough to play Test cricket and one of the lessons which we can all learn from the great Australian and West Indian sides of the last few years is that one-day sides are better if they are in the main based on the Test side.

The West Indies never varied from this policy and Australia, despite the loss of Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, still have a nucleus of Test players in the World Cup team. Michael Bevan, an unhappy performer in the Test arena, but a match winner at the one-day game is the notable exception.

So the selectors' dilemma is clear; and there is no obvious answer. Hussain has resigned and the three most commonly promoted candidates are not ready to step into his shoes. There is also no county captain who might make a temporary leader. The cupboard is bare; just as it is in so many parts of the England game.

The job will probably go to Vaughan when the one-day games begin this summer but only on the understanding that Hussain leaves a huge hole and that, so far, there is no-one capable of filling the gap.

How shall we judge Hussain as a one-day captain? Scarcely with high marks. For all England have made Australia fight hard in recent games they have still to beat the old enemy in limited overs matches in the last four years.

His foes have sprung out of the woodwork in the last few days to condemn his tactics, his leadership and his batting but he has been the finest one-day captain in England's history even if Graham Gooch did lead a much stronger team to the final of the 1992 competition.

He enthuses about one-day cricket which is a contrast to some of his predecessors who regarded it as a nuisance not to be tolerated.

I remember joining Gooch's team in New Zealand in 1992 just before the World Cup and asking if he regarded his tour as a warm-up for the World Cup. He sprang at me as if I had questioned his right to hold a bat. "This is a Test series and certainly more important than the World Cup," was his answer. He added that all sensible people understood that to be the case without asking such questions.

A friend of mine from India appeared on a BBC radio show this week and was astonished to be asked whether winning back the Ashes was not more important than winning the World Cup.

Hussain never felt that way. I doubt if he thought for a moment that a Test tour of New Zealand was anything like as important as a World Cup tournament. But then he is a very modern man.

He is surrounded by cricket people in this country who are not yet convinced that cricket ought to be a commercial sport, or that one-day cricket is here to stay. The great English dream is of a day in the sun at some obscure place like Tunbridge Wells, with a few spectators scattered round the grassy viewing area and a flask of tea and a parcel of sandwiches by the side of their deckchair.

It does not include standing up for the Mexican Wave in a stadium packed to the rafters, filled with noise and echoing to the chants of rival fans.

I am afraid that until those dreamers wake up to the reality of the modern world the chances of England winning the World Cup are remote and the task of picking a one-day captain all the harder.