He means a lot to this English side

Hussain, who took over from Alec Stewart at the conclusion of the 1999 World Cup, has been a positive influence on the team. He is aggressive by nature and English cricket did require a dash of that. He also backs his men and is an inspirational figure, writes S. DINAKAR.

IT'S all in the mind - leading and surviving in big-time cricket. A little game of chess where it boils down to "all the right moves."


Not just on the field of play. Often those innocuous press briefings can prove so handy when it comes to waging psychological warfare.

Astonishingly, in Nasser Hussain's case, he did not indulge in any sort of warfare. On the contrary, he simply ruled out his team's chances after the debacle in the Mohali Test.

England had been ambushed by the spin of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh and Hussain went on record stating his batsmen were unable to read the duo. On the face of it, this was abject surrender!

It was also a 'double bluff'.

By the admission of defeat so early in the series, Hussain was taking the pressure off his own team. It was India that would have to do all the running.

At the same time, the English camp, studying videos of Kumble and Harbhajan, was working overtime to counter their nemesis. The think-tank also formulated by-now-famous leg-side strategy of keeping the free-stroking batsmen under check.

This was a deliberate ploy by Hussain. In the last 14 months, England had scored away Test series triumphs in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with its batsmen taking on the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq and Muttiah Muralitharan, apart from the exciting young leggie, Danish Kaneria. And in Lanka, England actually bounced back from a setback in the first Test at Galle. Yet, Hussain underplayed the achievements.

Cleverly, Hussain had not fallen in the same trap as his more celebrated Aussie rival Steve Waugh did last year when he termed the Indian campaign as the 'Final Frontier' to conquer. It was the Aussies who 'finally' succumbed to the burden of expectations.

Similarly, when England clinched the thriller at Delhi, to whittle down India's lead to 2-3 in the ODI series, Hussain made a specific reference to 'playing in Mr. Tendulkar's homeground.' Again a tactic to put India's premier batsman under pressure. Small things that can, on occasions, make a huge difference.

Indeed, Hussain has done much to turn things around for England, opening the door of possibilities, creating chances - often out of nothing - and displaying courage under fire.

Captaincy. It's an intriguing subject. The debates are often endless, and the answers not easy. A badly led side can still triumph, while a superbly skippered outfit may go back defeated. Just where do we draw the line?

England lost the Test series 0-1, and drew the ODI competition 3-3, yet Hussain emerged a winner. He was fearless when the going got rough and displayed a rare clarity of thought.

Captaincy is also about those sparks of inspiration. It calls for that willingness to take the flak if things go wrong. A job that is clearly not for the chicken-hearted.

One remembers a conversation with former India opener and coach Aunshuman Gaekwad, who recalled the delightful little tale about Tiger Pataudi, arguably the finest Indian captain, producing a master-stroke by introducing B. S. Chandrasekhar at a critical juncture of the 1974-'75 India-West Indies Test at the Eden Gardens.

Chandrasekhar had been smashed in his earlier spell, yet Pataudi chose to replace Bishan Singh Bedi, who was operating to a nagging line, with the leg-spinner. It was a gamble but Pataudi backed his instincts. Chandrasekhar ran through the West Indies line-up in a mesmerising spell and the rest is history.

Hussain's decision to give another fling to left-arm spinner Ashley Giles in the climactic phase of the Delhi ODI was a bold move too. Giles had been hit out of the attack in his first spell and the batsman who mauled him, Sourav Ganguly, was still at the crease. It was a must-win situation for England, 1-3 down, and had the decision come unstuck, the consequences would have been disastrous for Hussain.

The fling of the dice worked. Giles, operating round the wicket for a change, consumed Ganguly, and soon the hunter became the hunted. England clinched the humdinger by two runs, and the skipper was quite the toast.

The world of ODIs is a much smaller canvas when compared to Test cricket, yet the brush strokes of Hussain's brilliance as captain were often visible. India was invariably off to a blistering start, still he kept the pressure on, bringing the field up, choking the singles, and creating panic in the Indian ranks once the ones and twos dried up. The skipper was attacking in his methods and this is precisely the reason why England came through nerve-jangling situations in Delhi and Mumbai.

Cricket, especially at the highest level, is all about handling pressure, and Hussain was aware that once the asking rate climbed the inexperienced Indian middle-order might crumble.

Indeed, Hussain who took over from Alec Stewart at the conclusion of the 1999 World Cup has been a positive influence on the team. He is aggressive by nature and English cricket did require a dash of that. He also backs his men and is an inspirational figure.

Actually, with his team close to full strength for the ODIs, Hussain had a lot more options - he could even leave out the likes of Andrew Caddick and Graham Thorpe till well into the series. Looking back, England's performance in the Test series was more creditable.

An outfit without principal pacemen Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, senior wicket-keeper batsman Alec Stewart and No. 1. offie Robert Croft had its task cut out in difficult conditions. To make matters worse, key batsman Graham Thorpe flew back following the first Test.

It was a test of character for the young side and it responded to the challenge with Hussain's leadership skills playing a pivotal role.

The absence of Gough and Caddick meant England possessed a grossly inexperienced pace attack of Matthew Hoggard, James Ormond and Andrew Flintoff. Hoggard was impressive in spells during the Mohali Test, while the lack of sting in Ormond's deliveries was distinct. Flintoff, on an SOS from the Australian Cricket Academy after Craig White indicated to the team-management about his inability to operate at a fast clip due to injury concerns, bowled with fire.

Hussain liked what he saw of Flintoff and a decision was soon taken. Flintoff would share the new ball with Hoggard. Here coach Duncun Fletcher's role has to acknowledged. He shares a wonderful rapport with Hussain and the team-management worked with singlemindedness in India.

Fletcher is a quiet but canny man who understands the intricacies of modern day cricket, with its hectic schedules extracting unique demands from the players.

And then came the contentious move - to have Giles operating over the wicket to the right-handers. The idea was simple - Giles would check the flow of runs from one end, while Flintoff and Hoggard would fire from the other. It worked.

India struggled for runs in both Ahmedabad and Bangalore, and England, against all expectations, was in a position to win both the Tests. Giles' leg-stump line was undoubtedly negative in nature, but it was a part of a bigger plan.

Hussain understood his side's limitations, was aware of the Indian batsmen's dominating ways against spin at home and was not prepared to give them any free hits. In other words, every run would have to be earned.

The England captain had a ready answer when a pressperson queried him about Giles' tactics. He just asked him to glance at the huge Indian scores against an Australian attack consisting of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne only last year.

In stark contrast, the much thinner England bowling had not only restricted the Indians, but also opened up victory possibilities. Had rain not ravaged the Bangalore Test, England might well have levelled the series. And Sachin Tendulkar - the principal target - had, for the first time in his glorious Test career, perished to a stumping, Giles being the bowler. A victory in itself.

This flexibility of thought midway through a series, that altered the course of events rather dramatically is a tribute to both Hussain and Fletcher. They had burned midnight candles, but it was well worth the effort.

There was much heat generated too, with Hussain himself getting sucked into a skirmish involving Tendulkar, Shiv Sundar Das, and bowler Giles in Bangalore. Angry words were exchanged, and the players concerned were lucky to get away with a mild warning of sorts by match referee Denis Lindsay. This was a blot in Hussain's record, but at least, he and his Indian counterpart Sourav Ganguly let bygones be bygones at the end of the day.

Hussain has to be careful here though. During the ODI series too, there were some moments where he appeared to cross the rather thin line between genuine disappointment and dissent whenever the umpires chose to change the muddy white ball in the later stages. His concern over the safety of his players when they were pelted with plastic bottles by the unruly crowds in Delhi and Mumbai was, however, perfectly justified.

There were several gains for England from the series. Flintoff emerged as a strike bowler, with the ability to soften the batsmen with his pace and bounce before snaring them, and Hoggard bowled with the heart of a lion, hitting the seam with regularity. And young wicket-keeper batsman James Foster blossomed as the tour progressed.

Hoggard was rewarded for his attitude and commitment too, when picked ahead of Caddick for the first four ODIs. Perhaps, this selection carried a larger message to players who stayed out of the Test series for reasons other than cricket.

The English team displayed much resolve and resilience and held its nerve in the ODI games in Delhi and Mumbai. A good sign on a tough tour where the Englishmen did not allow security concerns to work on their minds.

And the 33-year-old Chennai born Hussain emerged with flying colours - there were words of praise for him from Mike Brearley - on a testing assignment even if his all-out aggressive approach with the willow, on occasions, came unstuck in the heat of the battle. The England captain had his moments but confessed he would have been happier to have left India with a hundred against his name.

Hussain means a lot to this English side. Injury kept him out for much of the last Ashes in the Old Blighty and England could not sustain the momentum gained out of three successive Test series victories - over Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

But then, Hussain is both a captain and a leader. Decisive during crunch times on the field and standing by his men in the difficult moments off it.