Cricket: Hussain enters the cauldron

England's vice-captain may be a reformed character but he is still a passionate competitor who relishes the hot-house of Ashes cricket.
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IN A WAY the name explains everything, or least it did until power and responsibility changed him. Nasser Hussain is a complex character and at times unpredictable, but extremes are what Hussain used to be about and these days the England vice-captain is more likely to adopt a cat than kick one.

Hussain, born in 1968, was named after Abdul Nasser. A hero to his people, the late president of Egypt is famous for his role in Suez, a crisis that pinched some of Jim Laker's thunder after he had routed the Aussies at Old Trafford in 1956.

Forty-two years on, the Ashes are with Australia, and have been for the past decade. That dominance and the fact that Australia have recently beaten all the top teams in world cricket makes England firm underdogs for the coming series, a status Hussain does not deny.

"At the risk of using a football analogy, we are like Leicester City going to play a series of five matches at Old Trafford. Although we've just beaten South Africa, they are the favourites. After all, we are playing the best side in the world on their home soil."

A fairly shy man, who does not relax easily outside the usual circle of familiar faces, Hussain is none the less forthright in his views. Unfortunately many view him as being something of an outspoken yobbo, and he was heavily criticised for failing to condemn Mark Ilott and Robert Croft when they got involved in a bit of argy-bargy during a Natwest Trophy match two years ago. To make matters worse he rounded on English cricket by saying it was too soft.

"I still stand by that, though my comments at the time were more in admiration for Australian cricket than an all-out criticism of our game," he said. "I mean, when you play this lot it is so noticeable how much pressure they put you under. Against Australia, there is never any doubt that you are in a cauldron.

"For instance, when you're batting they just pick you to pieces, with people like Steve Waugh constantly making flippant comments about your technique. When they notice little flaws, such as Crofty's [Robert Croft] problems against the short ball, they just hammer into you.

"When you try to do it back it has no effect. It's their upbringing. They are just so mentally strong. They don't go down a gear, ever. Even players who've done it for years, like Ian Healy and Steve Waugh, are still full on."

Interestingly, it is an intensity of purpose that Hussain also possesses. Yet if Australian culture prizes aggression and ambition, Essex's latest captain has had to dilute the mix for public consumption back home. Fortunately the change has not blunted the sharp edge to his game and he remains a passionate, if occasionally overwrought, competitor.

Perhaps more importantly, he seems to have made a success of the No 3 spot, a position that had appeared blighted ever since David Gower evacuated it in 1992. If he has a fault, it is that he either hits hundreds or gets out in single figures. Unlike his personality, which has ameliorated, his batting still tends to runs hot or cold.

It is an unusual record and most Test batsmen have a half-century count more than double that of the centuries they have scored. Michael Atherton's ratio, for example, is 12 and 37, while Alec Stewart's is 11 and 28. In 34 Tests, Hussain has seven hundreds, including a double against Australia, and just six half-centuries.

He feels it is just a quirk and can offer no explanation for it. He does, however, rate the 207 he made against the Aussies at Edgbaston as his finest innings, and carries a ball by ball video of it around with him everywhere. "Just as a little refresher in case I forget I have actually been there."

Although he has not played Test cricket in Australia before - a youth World Cup and two stints in grade cricket mean he is not unfamiliar with the place - he likes the firm pitches and has found form where others, such as Mark Butcher, as well as Atherton and Stewart, have struggled.

"Getting runs early on has certainly given me confidence, but I don't think people should worry too much about Butch [Butcher], Athers and Stewie. They are all big-match players and mentally very strong."

A born competitor, Hussain is looking forward to the challenge, but warns of the unique pressures facing him and his team-mates against a side that that concedes nothing and expects to move mountains should any get in their way.

"With Australia, you always feel you have to get a big score. Against the West Indies if you get bowled out for a 150, you know with their batting line-up that you've always got a chance of returning the gesture. Against this lot, especially over here, if you get rolled over cheaply in the first innings you are generally out of the game.

"As a batsman, you have to concentrate for really long periods out here. If we are going to switch the pressure on to them, we've got to get big runs. Cricket against Australia is about pressure and the gaining of momentum. We have to stay in the game for three or four days and put the squeeze on them. If we don't, they'll crucify us."

A moderate lad, in the sense that his only concession to laddism is a baseball cap and an occasional rum and coke, Hussain still harbours the macho desire of beating Australia in their own back garden. For England cricketers, it is the holy grail.

"In England two seasons ago, our top six batsmen matched their top six and it was only the runs Healy and their tail got that gave them the edge. We had our chances, but unlike the Aussies we failed to take them. In this game it's all about seizing the moment, not letting it slip past."