Cricket: Hussain breaks with tradition

England captaincy contender is a shrewd, passionate cricketer in the modern mould. By Derek Pringle
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The Independent Online
AT FIRST glimpse, Nasser Hussain does not look pukka captaincy material. With his penchant for casual clothes and baseball caps, he is as far removed from the Fifties matinee idol ideal that has obsessed English cricket, as Chelmsford is from Madras, the place of his birth. Yet for those prepared to look closely, Hussain is a shrewd, passionate cricketer whose desire to succeed is just what English cricket needs, as it looks to step into the new millennium.

Hussain has been close to the top job before, most recently as Alec Stewart's only rival a year ago. Rumours emanating from HQ however, were that the occasional bout of temper - to which he is prone - made him something of a liability in the genteel world of Victorian mores by which the game in this country still judges itself.

Yet like it or not, Hussain is very much a product of modern Britain, and as such, should not be precluded from shaping its future. His likely rubber-stamping over the next week as England's next captain, shows that cricket now recognises that fact.

By his own admission, Hussain is no angel, though his past has been beset with problems few of his team-mates would encounter. Like Mark Ramprakash, with whom he once shared billing as one half of the "Tantrum Twins," he is the product of a mixed race marriage. As a consequence, growing pains have probably been more acute, with loyalties and identities tried for size, before being discarded. Indeed, when Norman Tebbitt infamously introduced his test for England's ethnic minorities in the late 1980's, an outraged Hussain immediately declared his support for India. It was hot-headed, but it showed spirit, something Hussain has always had in spades.

As well as stand his ground, he has also tended to speak his mind, even when dressing-room decorum has dictated otherwise. Both are distinctly un-English traits that have brought him into conflict with others, including his team-mates. Once, in a match for Essex against Kent at Tunbridge Wells, a young Hussain upset his acting captain Neil Foster, by offering him some tactical advice as Kent sauntered toward the target set them.

When Foster bollocked him in front of team-mates during the tea break, Hussain took his frustration out by kicking a cricket case.

Unfortunately the case fell on opening bowler Mark Ilott's foot, and the pair ended squaring up to each other when Hussain refused to apologise.

Essex's reaction was to drop him for two matches, a period that appeared to cool rather than extinguish the flame within.

If there have been other occasions too, where a still tongue would have been a better option, Hussain now recognises the need for prudence. At Essex where he is now captain, he is firm but even-handed in his criticism, a method Keith Fletcher employed during his captaincy of the county. Both Fletcher and Graham Gooch, despite the difference in their methods and philosophies, have been inspirations in making him the fine player he now is. Gooch in particular has worked tirelessly with him to iron out the technical blips, while Fletcher has helped to round the edges and redirect-direct the aggression towards opponents rather than self.

Unlike his temperament, his talent has never been in question, though like many schoolboy prodigies in this country, his rise to the top has been protracted and bumpy, rather than seamless and gremlin-free. Having played at youth level with Michael Atherton, including the British Universities side that came within a six hit of making the semi-finals of the 1989 Benson & Hedges Cup, their respective progress to the top, could not have been different.

An early taste of Test cricket with England in the West Indies in 1990, less than a year after he had graduated from Durham University with a degree in Natural Sciences, probably did him no favours. Although unflinching in England's brave efforts to beat them, his habit of opening the face of the bat on off-side shots, left him exposed. Dropped upon his return to England, he had to wait another three years to get another chance, a period of frustration that saw his emotions aired on a regular basis.

Many mistake his desire to do well and his search for fulfilment through cricket as selfishness. If it is, many in cricket share it. In any case he is bright enough to change without compromising his high ideals and standards.

Two seasons ago he found himself embroiled in controversy after stating that English cricket was too soft and needed to toughen up by adopting more Australian attitudes like sledging. He still believes it too, which is why his captaincy, although considered and thoughtful on the field, will ruffle a few feathers, especially amongst the peacocks.

That is no bad thing and many probably need someone new to invade the old comfort zones.

As vice-captain to both Atherton and Stewart, he has been close enough to power to know the pitfalls and will be under no illusions. He knows his life will be altered unutterably, should the chalice be passed to him, a fact becoming more likely by the day. What he must not do is adopt the safety first policy of his predecessors. With England's inconsistency it is easier said than done. Even so, he must persist for England's sake, and the qualities that got him there in the first place should not be compromised.