West Indies v England, 1st Test, Kingston, 2nd day

The odd couple

The Wisden Verdict by Rob Smyth in Kingston

March 12, 2004

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Nasser Hussain: setting the tone © Getty Images
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Mark Butcher and Nasser Hussain hardly look like perfect partners: one is left-handed, laid-back and most likely to be sat in his hotel room strumming his guitar; the other is right-handed, rigid and more likely to be climbing up the walls. And they always seem to run each other out. But not for the first time, they were England's salvation at Sabina Park today.

When they came together, at 33 for 2, England were in big trouble, frazzled by Fidel Edwards's sizzling opening spell. And though they rode their luck - both could have bagged golden ducks - they saw England through with some grizzled, gnarled cricket. It was ever thus: Butcher and Hussain are now the most-productive non-opening partnership in England's Test history with 2375 runs, having scooted past another odd couple, Graham Gooch and David Gower. Few major series go by without a gritted-teeth tryst from these two: Brisbane 1998 tamed the Aussies, Headingley 2001 conquered them; Lord's 2002 saved a Test, Sydney 2003 won one; and Trent Bridge 2003 turned a whole series.

This one - although it was terminated at 119 in the frenetic period after the rain delay, when Butcher was first dropped by Lara then snaffled by Jacobs - might just do the same. With sides as well-matched as these, momentum gathered from the first Test - not to mention a victory - should be decisive. Nobody knows that better than Hussain: he is no longer the captain, but he is still setting the agenda in the first Test of a series, just as he used to. This was rugged, hard-boiled cricket, cooked just the way Hussain likes it: his side were under pressure, his start was scratchy, and there was a tone to be set. With Edwards having whipped a delirious crowd into a state of hi-Fidelity, England's very own Scrooge bustled his way out to the middle, made eye contact with anyone who fancied it, and slowly, surely made everyone else play the game on his terms.

"Some of the stuff I've read about me and [Graham] Thorpe going on this tour because England need experience is a lot of crap," Hussain said in The Guardian earlier in the week. "You go on tour because you can score runs, not because you've done it in the past." Hussain doesn't want holiday snaps, PlayStation banter or nights on the tiles. He couldn't care less whether he entertains or not. His sole interest is in the most important detail of all - winning.

Yet the fact that England had to scrap so hard came as a bit of a shock. The pre-series rhetoric said that their top six would be able to pick off West Indies' wayward, coltish seam attack in their sleep. Instead they were given a sharp wake-up call from Edwards and Tino Best, who both consistently exceeded 90mph and roughed the batsmen up just as Patrick Patterson and friends used to. It was not supposed to be like this any more.

Edwards, quick, cocky and with the swagger of a man who thinks he is going to be a champion, was the most impressive. Through a slingy, roundarm action, he landed some swinging roundhouse rights on England's top order, and took every opportunity to play to the gallery by eyeballing the batsmen from the end of an extravagant follow-through. Eventually, for the time being at least, he met his match. It was prosaic rather than pretty, satisfying rather than stirring, the sort of old-fashioned Test cricket that was the norm before the recent orgy of runscoring. But are you going to tell Nasser Hussain that that's a bad thing?

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