Nasser Hussain: The man who transformed English cricket with Duncan Fletcher

Nasser Hussain… a respected name in English cricket © Getty Images

Nasser Hussain, born on March 28, 1968, was one of the most respected captains in world cricket — one who transformed the fortunes of the England cricket team during his tenure. Jaideep Vaidya looks back at the career of Hussain on his 45th birthday.

Nasser Hussain comes from the camp of sportsmen who were pushed and pressured to the core to live their parent(s)’ unfulfilled dreams and achieve perfection in their sport. Born in Madras (now Chennai), Hussain was one of four children born to an Indian-Muslim father, Jawad (Joe), and English mother, Shireen. Joe Hussain was a member of the Madras Cricket Club, and thus Nasser’s early days are filled with blurry recollections of running around Chepauk with his brothers and meeting famous cricketers from touring teams.

At age seven, Hussain’s family moved to England. His dad ensured that he went to the best of private schools with the finest facilities both academic and sporting. Hussain reveals in his autobiography, Playing with Fire, that his parents made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that he and his siblings got the best of everything. But this came with a rider, for Hussain at least; he was expected to excel in cricket.

Hussain’s childhood revolves around trying to please his father with feats on the cricket field. His autobiography also reveals that the whole family would have to suffer if Hussain did not perform, by not getting any “chocolate and curry” for dinner. However, Hussain still regards his father as “the single most important influence on my cricket”.

Hussain started his young cricketing career as a leg-spin bowler. He went on to be selected for the Essex junior teams and a promising career as a wrist spinner lay ahead. However, when he was about 15, Hussain “shot up in height” overnight, sending all the angles and the geometry involved in spin bowling for a toss. All of a sudden, the line and length was going haywire and a confused and a scared Hussain did not know what to do.

Hussain wasn’t a bad bat and, fortunately, his height hadn’t altered this art. He scored a hundred in one of his games and this is when his father decided that he should concentrate on batting. It was a productive move as Hussain went to play for England and score 5,764 Test runs in 96 matches at 37.19 for the Three Lions. However, those days of transition were tough on young Hussain. “Those days of self-doubt … was when the fear of failure really took hold of me. It has made me the cricketer I am, valuing each innings as if it was my last and selling my wicket dearly,” he said.

After rubbing shoulders with the past, present and future of England cricket at Essex, Hussain established his name as a talented top-order batsman and went on a number of England A tours; he was even selected as the 12th man for the national side on many occasions. Eventually, the big breakthrough came during England’s tour of the Caribbean in 1990. Hussain had already made his One-Day International (ODI) debut a year earlier in India, but a Test debut against Vivian Richards’s almighty West Indies was a different ballgame altogether.

Hussain didn’t get off to the best of starts; he scored just 100 runs in three Tests and was dropped from the team thereafter. It was three years before he got a second chance, and as luck would have it, it came during the all-important Ashes of 1993. Hussain started off brightly, scoring 71 and 47 not out at Nottingham, but could add only 66 more runs in the following three Tests and was booted out again. His third chance came three years later, when India toured the Old Blighty in 1996. This time, Hussain was not going to let it slip away. He scored a glorious 128 in the first Test at Edgbaston that played a crucial part in England winning the match. In the third Test at Trent Bridge, he scored 107 runs before retiring hurt, as England went on to clinch the series 1-0. However, what Hussain terms his most memorable innings came in the Ashes of 1997 at Birmingham. Hussain gave a masterclass in playing the cover drive a shot that would become his trademark as he belted the Aussies all over the park. After that knock, Hussain had arrived in international cricket.

On the pitch, Hussain was a fiery, volatile character. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never held back on anything he felt necessitated dialogue. It was a trait that he would carry with him into his post-retirement commentary career. Ravi Shastri got a nice dose of it during India’s 2011 tour of England. But if this was one side of Hussain’s character, the other was that of a balanced and thoughtful cricketer one who could inspire and motivate those around him. It was this side of Hussain that got him England captaincy after Alec Stewart’s retirement in 1999.

Hussain would go on to make a name as the most astute and inspiring of England captains since Mike Brearley, which was a big compliment in itself. Under Hussain, England won four Test series in a row for the first time since Brearley, and also rose to third place in the newly launched ICC Test Championship table, after languishing in ninth place in the erstwhile Wisden World Championship. Hussain brought a new energy, a new confidence into the England dressing room that was earlier missing for long. Under Hussain, England transformed from a bunch of deflated, underachieving individuals to a confident, fearless unit that finally lived up to its potential. Hussain was the man who gave a chance to a number of youngsters and ensured, along with coach Duncan Fletcher, that they were groomed well.

Hussain was the spine of the England team during his tenure, ready to back them in times of adversity and never crumbling under pressure. One of the most difficult periods in his captaincy came during the 2003 World Cup. England were scheduled to play a match in Zimbabwe and there was a substantial amount of political tension between the two countries, with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe calling England a “sworn enemy”. While the English government and public back home were against the team travelling to Zimbabwe, even if it meant forfeiting points and a chance to progress in the tournament, the England Cricket Board (ECB) had washed its hands off the matter and asked the captain and the players to take a call.

In the first 22 pages of his book, Hussain reveals the inside story behind the difficult decision he had to take after consulting all his teammates. He speaks of his verbal duel with then ICC CEO Malcolm Speed, who was adamant on England playing the match and refusing to consider England’s moral stance. Eventually, England did not play in Zimbabwe and were knocked out of the tournament. Hussain, scarred from the whole experience, announced his resignation from captaincy and retirement from ODIs.

He did not hang on to Test captaincy for long either after a slump in form. Hussain stepped down after four successful years at the helm during a series against South Africa in the summer of 2003, citing he had “grown tired” of the role. He continued to play for the team and played a part in helping England win their first series in the Caribbean after 36 years. In May 2004, Hussain set Lord’s alight with a match-winning 103 not out in the second innings as England chased down 282. Three days later, he announced his retirement from all forms of the game and took up a job in the Sky Sports commentary team.

After all the initial shock and disbelief over the sudden decision had subsided, one realised that this was typical Nasser Hussain. This was the guy who, after scoring a century in the 2002 NatWest series final against India, had shoved three fingers up the faces of his critics in the Lord’s media box, after they had wondered aloud what he was doing batting at No 3. So, it wasn’t really surprising that he had chosen to bow out on a high after a splendid century, rather than being unceremoniously dropped eventually.

Nasser Hussain: The man who transformed English cricket with Duncan Fletcher

Nasser Hussain (left) gestures with three fingers to the press box after scoring his century during the match between England and India in the NatWest One Day Series Final at Lord’s in London, England on July 13, 2002. Right: Points his No 3 on the back of his jersey to the mediamen © Getty Images

Come to think of it, he was always going to go this way. Asked during an interview with the Daily Mail later whether he was disappointed on missing out on a 100 Test caps (he retired with 96), Hussain said, “Not as disappointed as some people in the media make out…Most important thing is not out staying your welcome, not just plodding along, taking the money but also not leaving too early. And I don’t think I did either.”

Coach Fletcher, who along with Hussain had masterminded the transformation of the team, probably understood Hussain best: “In taking this decision I hope people realise that he has tried to do what is best for the England team rather than the individual. His desire and will to win are an object lesson to any cricketer out there who aspires to play for England and I know that we will all miss him in the changing rooms.” Hussain’s successor to England captaincy, Michael Vaughan, added, “His focus, preparation and the passion he showed in wearing an England shirt are qualities that I really admire.”

Nasser Hussain: The man who transformed English cricket with Duncan Fletcher

Coach Duncan Fletcher (left) and Nasser Hussain formed a fine team © Getty Images

The tributes soon began to pour in from across the world. Sachin Tendulkar told the BBC, “He was one of the best captains that I’ve played against and a tough character.” South African paceman Allan Donald said, “He was one of those guys that fancied being in very tough situations, similar to Steve Waugh. Hussain was a tough opponent who never backed down from a challenge.”

“Despite his struggle to find form with the bat, Hussain’s captaincy has made a real difference to the England team…Whatever happens in the future, there has been under his captaincy a real change in the morale of the team as a whole, and of several individual players within it,” wrote Brearley in his fantastic book, The Art of Captaincy. Hussain will always be remembered as the man who changed the England team. What he and Fletcher started in the late nineties is bearing fruit now with England rising to No 1 (currently No 2) in the world. Hussain was the man who instilled belief in the men at the helm of England today. It is, thus, not so coincidental that the man who would take England to No 1 in the world, Andrew Strauss, made his debut in Hussain’s last Test match.

Photo Gallery: Nasser Hussain’s career

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)