Cricket: Nasser feels pull of the main stage

Andrew Longmore says Hussain's winter may be even more glorious than summer

A RECENT visit to India to see his brother took Nasser Hussain back on a sentimental journey and brought him face to face with his own fame. Hussain was born in Madras 29 years ago, but the family moved back to Essex when he was seven, the wristy flair of his batting - and a penchant for curries and combat - surviving as a reminder of an early childhood spent at the Chepauk Stadium under the shrewd coaching eye of his ebullient father Joe.

They are a formidable family. Nasser's elder brothers, Mel and Abbas, were talented cricketers, Benu, the only daughter and the youngest of the four, trained with the Royal Ballet Company and is now performing with the Perth Royal Ballet company.

"There are times," Hussain writes in Ashes Summer, "when Benu has been the only person on stage and everyone in the audience is looking for any little slip-up...I know what it's like because it's so similar to batting in a Test." The spotlight rarely deserted Hussain last summer. There was the 207, the controversial catch at Old Trafford and confidences afforded by friends; Gooch telling his protege of his impending retirement on a walk round the ground at Northampton, ice creams in hand, and, on a drive back from Trent Bridge, Michael Atherton suggesting Hussain get his application in early for the impending vacancy (later refilled) for the job of England captain. "A chaotic few months," Hussain says.

Whether Benu's pas-de-deux has ever reached the rare heights of perfection brother Nas achieved on the most illuminated of cricket stages last June will doubtless be a matter for intensive debate around the Hussain dinner table. But few who witnessed the innings had seen better, not least for the surprise that a batsman so often damned by his own talent had thrived, obviously and thrillingly, on the emotions of the moment.

Hussain knew what it meant to the people of England. The nine o'clock news told him so. But not until he was hounded for autographs on an off- duty wander around the Taj Mahal with his wife Karen did the enormity of that achievement fully sink in. The grapevine works fast in cricket and the fact that Hussain was almost one of them meant that the youth of Agra could claim a slice of the glory too.

"When I got to my brother's flat in Delhi the kid downstairs had put up a poster saying 'Welcome Nasser', and he wanted to play cricket in the garden," he said. "Going round the Taj Mahal people recognised me and wanted photos with me. I was very surprised."

Even more so in Mauritius on a real get away-away-from-it-all spot (apart from having the proofs of his book as holiday reading) when, at the end of a boat trip, a boy asked him if he really was the bloke who had scored 200 against Australia. Hussain confirmed his identity. Exit one delirious child clutching autograph.

So what does he remember about that innings? "Repeating phrases that I learned from Goochie and Fletch, 'Don't give it away now, you might get 0 next time'. I was really aware of the importance of the game and that I hadn't really seen many of their bowlers, though I'd watched a video the previous evening, so I remember thinking: 'Hang on, here, let's see how this guy bowls'.

"Once I got to a hundred, the pressure was off a bit, but I kept telling myself not to give it all away with a crap shot. I'd played well for England for a while, but the good thing - good's a crap word - the great thing about this was that I was playing at my best in front of a full crowd in the first Test of an Ashes summer. It wasn't Oxford University."

Even the Aussies accorded the moment of his double-century full diplomatic honours. "Mark Waugh congratulated me, then said, 'You can f... off now, we've seen enough of you'." For Hussain, who later in the summer claimed some healthy pre- publicity for his book by proclaiming England's need to match the Australians for nastiness (in other words, sledging), that was the ultimate compliment.

Hussain copped his share of the onfield flak, not least from Steve Waugh, whose tour diaries form the other half of the unlikely literary partnership behind Ashes Summer. England, Hussain feels, need an ounce or two of Waugh's nastiness. "Some of the stuff for the book was being serialised in the Mail through the summer and Steve was quite clever. He is the master of storing information and then chirping at just the right moment. But he was the one who turned it round for them, not by any technical brilliance but just by application. He doesn't complicate things by looking on the bad side.

"We were talking at the end of the series and he said little things were important, like walking to the wicket and showing the bowler you're not worried, strutting out with your head held up and making the bowler wait. His mental approach is brilliant."

England's mentality will need to be cast-iron to withstand the onslaught of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose in the New Year. It will be Hussain's third tour of the Caribbean, following an unlikely selection at the age of 21 when he broke his wrist playing tennis and, as he admits now, spent the rest of the tour as a bewildered bystander. His next tour, four years later, was equally recreational.

This time he comes to the West Indies as a fully invested member of the team, no longer playing for his place game by game, but with a healthy stack of Test runs behind him and a glimpse of the England captaincy before him. No less than Australia, West Indies understand the importance of pressure. "They can sit back, then they get one wicket, Walsh and Ambrose run in, the crowd, the drums, the atmosphere. That's it, they're in for the kill."

The pleasing prospect for England and their followers is that Hussain, freed at last from the chains of his own potential, will relish the challenge.

"Ashes Summer" by Nasser Hussain and Steve Waugh, published on 11 November by Collins Willow, pounds 14.99.

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