'I didn't want to let myself down, or to become bitter'

The Interview - Nasser Hussain: Being England captain will always be his finest achievement. Stephen Brenkley talks to a committed cricketer now at peace with himself
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The Independent Online

Nasser Hussain has begun the rest of his life. It is 12 weeks since he dramatically relinquished the job that had obsessed him, came to define him, and almost devoured him. He is at peace with himself now, or at least appears to have negotiated the terms of a treaty, which is probably as close to tranquillity as driven men can approach. But things will never be the same.

When Hussain quit in late July as the captain of England's cricket team it was closer to an amputation than a resignation. In four devout, increasingly tortured years, he had immersed himself in his work, and it became part of him.

He had long aspired to a job for which many observers had thought him ill-equipped, and from the first day to the last he never wavered from the objective of converting England into a side commanding respect instead of derision.

At its simplest, Hussain set out to build a team that could enter matches believing they would win, instead of hoping that they might. The highest prizes - winning the Ashes and the World Cup - eluded him, but otherwise he largely succeeded.

The umbilical nature of the attachment was gradually to wear him down, however, and the sudden awareness that he was losing the team prompted his untimely announcement after the First Test against South Africa. The resignation was as intense as everything else he had done in the job. "I hadn't realised before, really," he said as he anticipated playing against Bangladesh for the first time. It is also the first time in 15 series that he has not started as captain. "Looking back, I could have done it after the World Cup, that was always my intention. But there was no real, obvious candidate. One thing I wanted to do was pass the side on to someone who was ready. We'd done a lot of hard work and made a lot of strides over the last four years, so you don't want everything to go backwards.

"All I was waiting for was someone to hold their hands up, and I saw Michael Vaughan in the one-dayers with a new, young set of lads. I didn't know any of them, really, and I'd have had completely to retrain the brain to work with them. It was time a new captain came in, someone who was closer to their age and era. Andrew Flintoff will associate himself more with Vaughan, Jimmy Anderson will, these young lads in this touring party will. I just felt I didn't have the energies left after the winter to restart."

It was the winter that finally did for Hussain's tenure. Last winter in Australia, he made no rash promises. He knew that England were up against the most formidable cricket team there had ever been. All he desired was for his boys to compete. They did not, they were brushed aside until the final Test in Sydney, and Hussain's whole tour was shaped and haunted by his decision to field after winning the toss in the First Test in Brisbane. Australia were 364 for two after the first day and won on the fourth.

Half-formed stories have emerged from that tour of the captain's demeanour. They are of how he ignored some of his players if he bumped into them out of the team room, of his wild-eyed sledging, of his strident barking at a junior player after a fielding error.

But good captains - and Hussain was a very good captain indeed - know that they cannot court popularity. They have to be aloof, and there was no point in Hussain, always fierce in his determination, pretending to be something he was not.

Unquestionably, he was edgy throughout the winter, and his mood grew darker and more passionate when the debate started about whether England should play their World Cup match in Zimbabwe. It was left to Hussain to make all the public statements on the issue, and the strain told. He looked drawn, and while his heart was never far from his sleeve there was often a tear straining to get out as well.

"I hope I did a good job as captain, but I don't mind admitting I made a lot of mistakes," he said. "Brisbane was one of them. In and around Test-match week it was becoming very difficult, much more than anybody would know. The week at Edgbaston, Brisbane after the toss, the Zimbabwe issue. I didn't want to let myself down, go down the road of previous captains, and get bitter.

"My captaincy, mistakes and all, was done through gut feeling and instinct and not worrying what other people were thinking. But it wasn't all rollickings. There are many ways of getting the best out of players. What they look for is consistency. There was a way I went about them in public, but I had my own opinions in the dressing room. You tend to pigeonhole England captains, but you don't end up being a successful captain with people like Gough and Caddick by constantly having a go at them.

"There were things to do, mind games to play with them at the end of their run, going to their room, things like that. That was the other thing about the summer. I didn't want anyone in that team to be saying, 'Nasser's not our captain'. And I didn't want to be seen to be doing things because of what was being said on the television."

Hussain was appointed as captain in 1999 (after England had a shambolic World Cup) and led the side in 45 matches. They won 17 of them and lost 15. Four of the defeats came at the start when he was still creating his side, another six came against Australia (he was injured for two defeats in the 2001 home rubber).

His great period, the one where it was clear that England were now hard to beat and therefore were capable of winning, was in the sequence of four successive series victories: Zimbabwe, West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The thrilling, combative nature of the wins was as magnetic as the results themselves.

It is still slightly surprising that he has chosen to continue as a player, albeit now the senior professional. For was it not the England captaincy that spurred him on, that became his raison d'être as a cricketer? "I desperately want to play for England, but all I want to be judged on is if I get runs," he said. "For a couple of years now with England I've done well, and last summer with Essex, for a couple of months I played as well as I've ever played.

"When you miss games like I did at The Oval [he had broken his toe in the Fourth Test] you've got to realise how lucky you are when you see the reactions of people to that win. You don't take for granted what you're doing, and whether it be Bangladesh or anybody else, you're still playing for England and it's still bloody important. Also, why be disrespectful to Bangladesh? Who are we to say, 'Oh, I'll give that one a miss'?"

He might be settling to his new status, though it seemed improbable at first. When he played his first match as the ex-captain at Lord's there were murmurings of his tetchiness in the dressing room, and he dropped the South African captain, Graeme Smith, when he was eight. Smith made 259.

It will be intriguing to discover how Hussain deals with this winter's tours. Plenty of previous England captains have been reduced to the ranks and played on (the last four, for a start, which would never happen in Australia), but his style makes this different. The gaps are not only in age; others have been created by Hussain's approach to his job.

"I don't know who I'm going to hang about with," he said. "Having been captain for four years I don't have any pals left, to be honest. I'll be desperate if I have to go out with [England coach Duncan] Fletcher and people like that." He said it with a laugh, but you sense he was only half-joking.

If he has an ambition left internationally, it is probably to play 100 Test matches. But he has not ruled out one more bash against Australia. "I've done well against them, they rate me as a player, they think I'm quite mentally strong, so I wouldn't mind another go, but that's a long way away for someone who is 35, and at that age you need to score runs." It is Hussain's declared mission now to become the team's wise old soul, to help those coming into the team. Envisaging him as avuncular adviser is a stretch, but he is earnest: "I want to see the side progress, and to contribute in any way I can to that."

So, here he is: Nasser Hussain, 35, former captain of England. This winter will tell him much. "At the time I got the captaincy, people were saying, 'Is he the right man?' The greatest thing for me was the phone calls afterwards from people like Thorpe and Atherton. They were special, and that's why I didn't want one minute of ruining it. I enjoyed being Nasser Hussain, England captain, and that's the one thing I'll always miss. It's just the next day you're an ex-captain, and you put on Teletext and you read about the England captain, Michael Vaughan.

"I'm pretty happy. Not too much damage was done and all's well that ends well, especially with Vaughany coming up with that win at The Oval to make it 2-2. Being England captain was the best thing I will ever do professionally, but there's still a lot to do. I'm at peace with myself."

Nasser Hussain may be looking forward, but he will never stop looking back.

Biography: Nasser Hussain OBE

Born: 28 March 1968 in Madras.

Family: Married to Karen, children Jacob and Joel.

Test career: debut v West Indies, 1989-90, 87 Tests. Batting: 154 innings, 5,196 runs at average of 37.11 (highest score 207, 13 hundreds). 58 catches. Bowling: 5-0-15-0.

One-day Internationals: debut v Pakistan, 1989-90, 88 matches. Batting: 2,332 runs at 30.28 (highest score 115, one hundred). 40 catches.

First-class career: Batting: 19,872 runs at 42.10 (50 hundreds). 337 catches. Bowling: 52-3-323-2.

Also: succeeded Alex Stewart as England captain in 1999. Awarded OBE in December 2001.