“What a load of sh*t”
“We are sh*t and we know we are”
These were the chorused words Nasser Hussain had to hear from England fans at The Oval after the culmination of his first Test series as England captain in 1999. His beginning was as calamitous as England’s time preceding his captaincy. They had won only one Test series since the 1997 season. Overall, they could hoist the victory flag in only 25 out of the 100 Tests since 1990.
The omission from the World Cup without reaching the Super Six stage in home conditions had proven to be the knockout punch to Alec Stewart’s time as captain. There was a palpable sense of impatience amongst English fans. To add to their wounds, England suffered an embarrassing collapse in the fourth Test against New Zealand. They lost eight wickets for 39 runs in the last innings to concede the decisive Test by 83 runs. “I am proud of the lads. They did everything I asked them for”, said Hussain at the post-match presentation in an attempt to protect the team spirit from getting frail which did not sit well with fans. They blurted out their frustration which can have adverse effects on a new captain.
An emotional Hussain, at the press conference later accepted that the chants were hurtful but also deemed them understandable. He also requested the fans to keep their patience, explaining that the side has a “hell lot of desire”.
As a youngster, Hussain was considered to be a firebrand. A hot head and a pugnacious character, he had fought back from unpropitious situations in the past to come out on top. This was another such moment.
The loss to New Zealand had plummeted England down to number nine in the unofficial Wisden World Championship rankings used back then. That was the last spot with Bangladesh, the tenth Test playing nation yet to be introduced. Quite literally, the only way to go for England was upwards.
Hussain shook hands with the new coach, Duncan Fletcher. Without knowing much about each other, the two formed a partnership which in many ways was the best thing to happen to England cricket in a long long time. After a well-fought series but a pyrrhic effort in South Africa in 1999/2000, England won the four Test series in a row, including back-to-back series wins in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, two Asian giants. They rose to number three in the newly introduced ICC Test Championship rankings. The tables were turned within 18 months of the booing at The Oval.
The first step taken by the two was ensuring that the country was evaluated above counties. Cricket in England up until that point was quite synonymous with football where clubs held more importance over the country.
Under Fletcher’s association with Hussain, central contracts were introduced for the first time by ECB. Country was given more importance. Pointing out the flaws in the system, Fletcher established communication with counties instructing them to rest the players who were supposed to represent England later in the week in a Test match. England were no more fielding with tired bowlers which played a massive role in their resurgence. Also, with a fine eye for talent, Fletcher catapulted underachievers at the county level like Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick into the Test side.
On the other hand, Hussain was a brilliant captain on the field. An energetic skipper who would try to make things happen, he left a solid impression wherever he toured with his side. He put the spine back in the England team. Sachin Tendulkar, in fact, claimed Hussain to be the best captain he 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.
England, however, still could not turn their fortunes in The Ashes or in the World Cup. While Australia was the toughest challenge for any opposition in those times, Hussain’s only World Cup as captain - 2003 edition in South Africa - was marred due to political reasons.
Facing the dilemma whether to play in Zimbabwe or not due to political circumstances, ECB left the decision solely on the skipper. Well aware that forfeiting the game would mean dropping crucial points putting their campaign in jeopardy, Hussain claims he did not sleep the whole night. England forfeited the match and later crashed out of the tournament, once again failing to go beyond the group stage.
Hussain stepped down as ODI captain and a few months later, he quit the Test captaincy as well after leading England in 45 Tests, the third most at that point in a long history of English cricket and having laid the foundation for further great things. One of those great things was the Ashes victory in 2005.
As a player, Hussain went through similar ups and downs. His formative years to being an international cricketer isn’t much different from that of the former Indian cricketer, Yuvraj Singh. For Hussain, it was all about impressing his father on the cricket field who played a solitary first-class game in his career for Madras. Jawid Hussain, or Joe, saw his unfulfilled dream in his kids, Mehriyar, Abbas and Nasser.
A member of the Madras Cricket Club, by the virtue of which the boys in the Hussain family spent a lot of their early years playing cricket in the Chepauk Stadium, Jawid decided to quit a decent life in India and headed to England to ensure better academic and sporting facilities for his son. While Mehriyar and Abbas played county cricket, the pressure to deliver was most on the youngest and the most promising one of the lot, Nasser.
Till 15, he was a prospering old-school leg-spinner who could bat a bit. However, a surge in his height messed up the trajectory of his flight. He lost the zeal in his leg-spinners overnight and had no option but to work on his batting to live up to his father’s expectations.
Nourishing his technical deficiencies and scoring tons of runs in the 1989/90 county season, Hussain made his Test debut during England’s tour of West Indies in 1990 alongside Stewart, the man he would replace as England’s captain by the end of the decade. Both scored 13 on an unfruitful debut. While Stewart continued to play for England consistently, Hussain, having played three Tests in the series before breaking his wrist, had to wait for three years for his next opportunity. His return in 1993 was also brief and he was laid off for another three years.
India’s tour of England, which saw the introduction of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly into international cricket, also marked the arrival of Hussain as a batsman. Back in the side, promoted to number three by the then coach, David Lloyd, Hussain scored his first Test ton in England’s first innings - 128 in Birmingham. Another hundred in the last Test (107* in Nottingham) ensured that third time's the charm.
As a batsman, Hussain’s form was mostly on extremes, either he was good or he was bad, there was no middle for him. The best example of this would be England’s Test series in South Africa in 1999/00 in which Hussain averaged 61.6 but then could not get past an average of 23 over the course of the next four series, each of which England won under his captaincy.
Such variance meant he finished with 5,764 runs in 96 Tests with an average of 37.2. It may seem like an underwhelming record but delving further and glancing at his contemporaries in the England team - Stewart (averaging 39.5), Graeme Hick (31.3), Mark Ramprakash (27.3), Michael Atherton (37.7), Mark Butcher (34.6) - he actually didn’t do that bad. In fact, during his career span, England’s top five collectively averaged 38.1.
Some may argue that Hussain underachieved as a batsman given his veering form but the Madras-born thinks he overstayed his time. “I played 96 Tests, which is probably more than I should have with the amount of ability I had”, said Hussain in an interview with ESPNCricinfo.
In his last Test, at Lord’s, against New Zealand, he scored a match-winning hundred in a run-chase, on this day in 2004. A night ago, he had made his decision to retire without any official announcement.
En route his hundred, he got Andrew Strauss run-out. Strauss, on his debut was on course to the unique distinction of a hundred in each innings of his first Test when he was pulled into a non-existent run by Hussain to find himself with no chance of making his ground at 83. Stepping up from that moment of chaos, Hussain forged a 139-run stand with Graham Thorpe to knock off a victory. He struck the winning runs which took him to three-figures. The enthusiasm on his face was reminiscent of a child who has finally convinced his parents to buy him something. It was a dream farewell to a highly relevant career in England’s cricket history.
Three days later, he announced his retirement in an emotional press conference. He also confirmed he will be joining Sky Sports panel stepping into the commentary world.
The current generation, which missed out on witnessing Nasser Hussain, the captain, can feel a hint of his brilliance through his sharp observations as a commentator. An astute and articulate personality, he is renowned as one of the finest men behind the mic in modern-day cricket.
In 2011, he was there to call the moment when Strauss was presented with the Test mace having led the England team to the number 1 ranking as a result of a 4-0 victory over the touring Indians. It occurred at The Oval, the same venue where 12 years ago, the team was booed and England slipped to the last position in the rankings. It was there where the stepping stone to England’s rise was placed and definitely, Hussain’s mind would have hopped on to that moment walking through the entire journey followed by a little grin on his face.