August 1, 2003

Hussain's mental legacy destroyed

Nasser Hussain: no longer in control of England's destiny

On Thursday, the BBC website ran an interview with Nasser Hussain's brother, in which he hinted that the end of a great career was nigh. "It is purely a mental thing," said Mel Hussain. "If he walked after this Test match I wouldn't be surprised."

Anyone who dares to enquire of Nasser's mental state this evening is liable to get a bat wrapped round his head. If the opening day of the series at Edgbaston was bad enough to break his spirit, today's debacle will surely topple him straight over the edge.

Hussain cannot be blamed for England's ghastly failings in this match, although he won't see it like that. His failure to snaffle Graeme Smith at cover yesterday evening is already ranking alongside Kiran More's drop off Graham Gooch in 1990, as the most expensive miss ever seen in a Lord's Test.

But, more devastating than that physical slight, it is the utter demolition of Hussain's mental legacy that will cut him to the quick. In three fabulously simple steps, Smith and South Africa have swarmed onto the psychological highveld, and Michael Vaughan's touchy-feely new England are utterly powerless to respond.

Vaughan does not deserve such a rude awakening, but it is better that he wises up now than in two years' time when Australia next roll onto these shores. Test cricket, as Smith is demonstrating so prodigiously, is a game for hard men and hard teams, and Vaughan's laissez faire attitude is an open invitation for disaster.

When Mark Butcher dropped a sitter at second slip, for example, Andrew Flintoff's response was a cheery round of applause that bordered on indifference. Flintoff, as everyone knows, is a man who needs regular horsewhipping if he is to come remotely close to his potential. But in the current climate, nearly enough is quite enough, thank you.

In the NatWest Series, Vaughan had 11 captains, eager to share their slice of the glory. But this evening, he will be utterly alone with his thoughts, alongside 10 other bedraggled victims of Smith's brutally effective divide-and-rule policy. How they must be crying out for one of Hussain's rollickings! Instead, the man himself is probably busy penning his retirement speech.

An inquest is inevitable, and it might be suggested that England have begun to believe their own publicity. Since the start of the season, the Guardian newspaper has run a weekly column, entirely tongue-in-cheek, which tracks the extent to which James Anderson has become the new David Beckham. His hairstyle and lifestyle certainly live up to the hype, but Beckham's entire fortune is based on an ability to land the ball on a sixpence time and time again. Without it, he is a one-footed, medium-paced toiler.

It is bordering on sacrilegious - and not a little cruel - to take England's golden boy to task. For a man who is just entering the eighth month of a whirlwind career, Anderson remains hugely in credit. His 4 for 29 against Pakistan in the World Cup has entered folklore, alongside his five wickets on Test debut at Lord's, and his hat-trick at The Oval, and every other moment of magic that you care to recall.

But let us not forget that the man who has beaten him to a pulp is only 22 himself. To use the hip and trendy analogy of The Matrix, England's marketing men may have believed they had found their Neo, but to Agent Smith, he is just a plain "Mr Anderson". It might be time for a trip to the barbers and a return to Old Trafford for some honest toil in the county game. While England's new strategists work out just how to defeat the machine.

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