December 24, 2001

England should be disappointed but not dismayed

It is not possible for a touring party to return home glowing with total satisfaction after suffering a 1-0 series defeat, but Duncan Fletcher, Nasser Hussain and their men should be glowing with pride for the way the inexperienced team performed on their Indian adventure.

There was more than one preview written before departure that looked at the known facts and stated that if England returned not having been beaten 3-0 they would have done very well. By the same yardstick, therefore, they did do very well. Undercooked and outplayed in the first Test, they came back so well that they had the better of the second Test and were favourites to win the third had not the weather conspired to prevent them pressing home a distinct advantage.

You have to offer some sympathy to those who wrote off the team before they had taken off from Heathrow. Michael Atherton had retired. The rock on which the batting order was built was no longer there. Darren Gough and Alec Stewart were not available for selection. The premier strike bowler and vital wicket-keeper/batsman all-rounder were missing. Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft withdrew after September 11th. The other main strike bowler and the man who, for all his critics, had contributed to the previous winter's success had to be replaced.

Add into the equation the fact that Ashley Giles was still some way short of match fitness and Graham Thorpe was to return home on the eve of the second Test and, to quote numerous football managers, you might have said that "England would be lucky to get nil." In reality, they were very unfortunate not to get at least one.

Fletcher and Hussain picked up the pieces after the drubbing at Mohali in spectacular fashion and have to be admired and congratulated for what they achieved with the resources at their disposal.

The captain has been criticised for imposing the tactics that saw Giles bowling left-arm spin over the wicket into the rough to frustrate Sachin Tendulkar. What arrant nonsense! It was just an example of the forethought and planning that has elevated Hussain, backed by his coach, to the highest level of Test captaincy.

Just as Jardine looked for ways to counter Bradman, so Hussain found a way to negate Tendulkar. What was he supposed to do? Inquire "Excuse me Sachin, old mate, where would you like us to bowl at you so you can thrill the crowd with the magnificence of your strokeplay? Right, pitched up just outside off-stump it will be then." I think not.

It might not have been pretty to watch and there were times when the umpires should surely have called wide, but one of the great batsmen of modern times was prevented from being at his best.

Any assessment of a series must take into account the quality of the opposition, and the mere mention of Tendulkar illustrates what England were up against. And remember, this was the same opposition that beat mighty Australia in similar conditions a year ago. Plus the fact that that the superb Anil Kumble was back to strengthen the spin bowling. Tendulkar, Kumble, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Javagal Srinath and Harbhajan Singh. The supporting cast is not too shabby, either. On home ground, the opposition was out of the top drawer.

But what of England's players? Hussain himself is in no doubt that this team has grown in stature as the tour progressed. "Sometimes in places like India people can go apart, but we have grown together," he said. "The biggest gain from my side is the team morale, spirit and camaraderie we have built up."

Perhaps the performances of players like James Foster and Richard Dawson, both of them making Test debuts with only a handful of first-class matches behind them, summed up the overall display.

"Fozzie told me afterwards that he was nervous throughout that first game and he came to ask my advice on how to ease those nerves," said Hussain. "I said 'I will give you a tip -- they never go away'. And he's had to adapt to that. It is just the mental toughness of it all and the young lads have adapted to that mental toughness.

"One thing Fozzie has taught himself on this trip is that he can get runs for England. That's an important thing. If he hadn't got them he might be wondering whether he was good enough. At least now he knows he can get runs and we will try and work on that. Fozzie has shown that he can improve but he doesn't have to be Alec Stewart yet. He has to be Alec Stewart in two or three years time."

On of the bonuses for Hussain has been the way players like Matthew Hoggard and others have seized the opportunity to show that they are made of the right stuff for Test cricket.

"This time last year, when we won those series, we had 14 or 15 people to pick from. Hopefully now with some of the senior guys coming back, it gives us 18, 19 or 20.

"Duncan Fletcher said to people at the start of this tour 'make it difficult for us to leave you out' and people have done that. We have tried to be continuous with selection. People have put their hands up and we will stick by them. It's all about character and someone like Hoggard would literally run through a brick wall for you."

To sum up, at the end of the tour there is justified disappointment but no justification for dismay.