Between the dawn of the decade from 1990 till losing the Ashes for the umpteenth time in the New Year’s Test in Sydney in January, 1999, England won only 25 out of their 100 Test matches. They had won a Test series only once since the 1997 season. Few months later, they failed to make it to the Super Six stage of a 12-team World Cup at home.
The ‘90s were glum times for English cricket. In Test cricket, specifically, they were led by Graham Gooch (1989-1993), Michael Atherton (1993-1998) and Alec Stewart (1998-1999) during this period. As batsmen, each one of them were no less than role models, inspiring a generation of youngsters with their stoicism. However, they could not emulate that with their leadership.
The embarrassment of the 1999 World Cup marked the end of Stewart’s time as captain. Having gone for methodical choices earlier and eager to taste some success, England this time opted for an out-of-the-box candidate as their captain in Nasser Hussain.
To understand why he was an out-of-the-box pick, it is important to understand Hussain as a person. He didn’t carry the persona of the sedate analyst/broadcaster that we see in him nowadays. He was, instead, considered a firebrand, a pugnacious character.
He made his England debut as a 21-year old in Jamaica against West Indies in 1989, alongside the man he would replace as England skipper, Stewart. Further opportunities deserted Hussain while Stewart became a regular figure in Test cricket for England. It was in 1996 when Hussain was finally able to establish himself in the Test side. Stewart had played more than 50 Tests by then. When he was appointed as England captain, he was a 75-Test veteran. Hussain, on the other hand, was relatively young in terms of matches played - 39 Tests.
Moreover, Hussain did not have a history of leading a professional side before. His only captaincy experience before being appointed as England captain was taking an England A side to Pakistan.
Facing New Zealand on his first day as Test captain, on this day in 1999, Hussain enjoyed a good day. New Zealand were bowled out for 226 after winning the toss at Edgbaston. On the third day, Hussain instilled a glimmer of hope for the future as his side clinched a seven wicket win.
The glimmer soon turned into a fusillade of boos by the end of the series at The Oval. England suffered an embarrassing collapse losing eight wickets for 39 runs to concede the series in the final Test. Hussain, in an attempt to keep the morale up, said that he is proud of the lads. The impatient crowd blurted out their frustration commenting, “We are sh*t and we know it”.
The defeat also pushed England down to number 9 in the unofficial Wisden World Championship rankings used back then. An emotional Hussain requested the fans to keep their faith in the team saying the side has a “hell lot of desire”.
Appointing Hussain as captain was not the only punt made by the ECB. They also picked Duncan Fletcher as their coach over the experienced Bob Woolmer. Fletcher had been coaching Glamorgan when he was picked to guide England.
Hussain and Fletcher were contrasting personalities who had not met each other before. In their first rendezvous, at Lord’s, the two discussed why England cricket is not yielding results despite having all the resources, including quality players.
Throughout the ‘90s, England failed to win a series against Australia, West Indies and Pakistan, both home and away. While all these opposition had indomitable bowling attacks - Glenn McGrath & Shane Warne for Australia, Courtney Walsh & Sir Curtly Ambrose for West Indies, Wasim Akram & Waqar Younis for Pakistan - England’s best bowling duo - Angus Fraser & Darren Gough - were marred by injuries.
The two were England’s most productive bowlers throughout the ‘90s but none of them featured in the top 10 list of wicket-takers of the decade. Moreover, they could play only 15 Tests together.
A lot of it could be accounted to the faulty priority of county over country in the English cricket setup. The introduction of central contracts during Fletcher and Hussain’s regime reconfigured the priorities to country over county.
It enabled the England players, especially the fast bowlers, to rest themselves ahead of the Test match later in the week. Injuries were managed better. The fast bowlers were fresh to take on the challenges of Test cricket.
In their first assignment together, England lost a closely contested series in South Africa. But they later rose to win four series on the trot from 2000 onwards. They were finally able to defeat West Indies for the first time in 31 years. They trounced Sri Lanka and Pakistan in back to back Test series in Asia. No other England team has won back to back to series in Asia since then. Within 18 months after being ranked nine, they were now ranked third in the official ICC Test Rankings.
It was under the Fletcher-Hussain partnership when players like Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, James Anderson, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones made their Test debut. Vaughan and Trescothick in particular were catapulted to the Test side when they were nothing more than underachievers on the county circuit. Hussain had never seen Trescothick play when he was picked for England but trusted Fletcher’s fine eye for talent.
The trust between the two was the pillar on which England’s future was built on. Years later, when England regained the Ashes after 18 years, in 2005, the same bunch played a huge role. Vaughan was the captain having taken the baton from Hussain. Trecothick was in the running for the role alongside Vaughan. Harmison, Hoggard and Jones were central figures in the bowling attack which troubled the Aussie batsmen.
Anderson was selected as a raw 20-year old pacer with an experience of only 17 first-class games. Currently, no other pacer has taken more Test wickets than him and he remains the only specialist pacer to earn over 150 Test caps. He played a pivotal role in Andrew Strauss’ team reaching the summit of the Test rankings.
Both Vaughan and Strauss bore fruit of the seeds sown by Fletcher and Hussain.
In many ways, Hussain as a captain did what Sourav Ganguly achieved for India. They both took charge under tumultuous circumstances. They both picked youngsters, backed them to the hilt to see them achieve greater things post their retirement. Both of them were applauded for their aggressive style of captaincy.
Hussain drew praise from Sachin Tendulkar who deemed the England skipper as the best captain he has played against.
“Nasser would not place a fielder in a particular position after a shot was played. Rather, he had the ability to anticipate the shot and would place a fielder well in advance, making a real difference to his team”, wrote Tendulkar in his autobiography.
Hussain led England in 45 Tests, winning 17 of those and losing 15. The win percentage under him was 37.8. Amongst his most recent predecessors, only Bob Willis had a better win percentage - 38.9 - during his reign from 1982 to 1984.
Hussain resigned from captaincy after the first Test against South Africa in 2003, in Birmingham, the same venue where his journey started. Continuing as a player, he played 12 more Test matches.
His last Test innings was a match-winning hundred in a run chase against New Zealand at Lord’s. When he hit the winning boundary which also took him to his hundred, he, along with Fletcher, were the only people who knew that it was his last scoring shot as an international cricketer. Hussain had made up his mind a night ago and had discussed the idea only with Fletcher, displaying another attribute of the trust and respect the two gentlemen held for each other.