Hussain: 'Flintoff is the right man for the job'
England's tour of India may be lurching from one crisis to the next, but Nasser Hussain - the man who masterminded their last tour of the country in 2001-02 - believes that the current adversity could work out in their favour, so long as they stick to their gameplans.
"I know the pressure of playing on the subcontinent," Hussain told Cricinfo on the eve of his departure for Nagpur, where he will be forming part of the Sky Sports commentary team. "I'm quite happy for England to have these injuries because it puts the pressure back on India. They should beat England come Wednesday, so England have absolutely nothing to lose. They just need to keep their control, and keep the pressure on the opposition for as long as they can."
Four years ago, Hussain led a team of rookies to a 1-0 defeat that felt at the time like a triumph. Shorn of the services of men such as Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough, Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton, he controlled the tempo for much of the three-Test series, and with a bit of luck in the final match at Bangalore, England might have secured at least a share of the spoils.
The similarities between then and now are stark, with England missing their captain and vice-captain, Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, as well as their most experienced spinner, Ashley Giles. But Hussain was adamant that the team still retained a fighting chance, not least because of the current volatile state of Indian cricket.
"I always believe that, in the subcontinent, the longer you can keep the opposition down, the more the crowd gets on the back of the home side," he added. "If England can do anything and can perform in that first Test match to any degree, I think it will put pressure on Dravid and Chappell, and who knows, it might reopen the Ganguly issue as well."
To that end, he believed that the decision to pass the captaincy duties over to Andrew Flintoff was a bold and thoughtful move, and one that has been rewarded by today's news that Flintoff will now be staying with the squad for the whole tour, and not flying home during the third Test as planned, to attend the birth of his second child.
There are some fears that the millstone of the captaincy could be detrimental for a performer so central to England's fortunes, but Hussain is not one of the doubters. "I've got no worries about the additional burden, because desperate times call for desperate measures, and England need someone who will lift them above the ordinary. Freddie definitely has the capability to do that, so I'm pleased he's been given this opportunity. He is absolutely crucial to England's success.
"At the moment, England's energy levels will be low," he explained. "They'll be down, and they'll need to look at someone to lift them. Flintoff is that sort of man. He can lift any dressing-room, and last summer he lifted the whole country. He can lift England when it's most needed, which is right now.
"It will be difficult for him, but he's got nothing to lose, and more importantly, he will also take crucial players along with him - men such as [Steve] Harmison, who's absolutely pivotal, and [Kevin] Pietersen. So it's a clever move again by Fletcher, because it appeals to that important core of the side that responds well to Flintoff."
England are expected to name two debutants in Alastair Cook and Ian Blackwell, but Hussain was not worried about their motivation to succeed. "Those guys will respond to anyone really, because they are just coming into the side and making their debuts. You could leave Ronnie Irani in charge and still they'd be lifted! It doesn't matter. What you do need, though, is for your dangermen to be up for it, and by giving the captaincy to Flintoff, it's a clever move."
Hussain was Blackwell's captain when he made his debut in the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka three years ago, and he believes this tour is a golden opportunity for Blackwell to stake a claim for the pivotal No. 8 position that Ashley Giles has made his own in recent years.
"Potentially, Ashley should be more worried about Blackwell than any other spinner in England, because he is capable of fulfilling that role that Fletcher and Vaughan want. He's a clever left-arm spinner, and because he bats as well, he thinks like a batsman which helps him bowl better. He's no Daniel Vettori, but he's more than just a part-timer, and he's particularly good on the subcontinent because he plays well on low surfaces.
"It all comes down to Blackwell's attitude off the field," Hussain warned. "It's about sacrifices and what you want to give. The work you do off the field makes you successful on the field, and you only have to look at Andrew Flintoff to realise that. Blackwell is saying all the right things, but you can't just do that for one day, you have to do it for a whole career. You don't get too many third or fourth chances, especially with Fletcher. This time it's last-chance saloon, and he's got to take it."
For all his positive outlook, however, Hussain felt that the absence of Trescothick would be a huge blow to England's chances, and equated it to the loss of Graham Thorpe - also for "personal reasons" - on his own tour in 2001-02.
"In the last five years, England's two best players in the subcontinent have been Thorpe and Trescothick," said Hussain. "They are two different styles of players, but Trescothick is a vital cog in this England side. He plays spinners well - he attacks them, he defends them, he's left-handed which helps, and he rotates the strike. And also he's a good man around the dressing-room, and one of Vaughan's right-hand-men, especially through his body language when things need to be said or done.
"He's a popular member of the side, and he's going to be missed because he's a good man," Hussain concluded, after Trescothick had flown home from the tour in tears on Saturday night. "So whatever it is, and I don't know what it is, both cricketing-wise and non-cricketing wise, I hope Tres sorts it out."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo