Tim de Lisle: Hussain's achievement was to instil fierce pride into lightweight team

Former captain's batting suffered as he converted also-rans into steely competitors and his successor must avoid similar setback
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The Independent Online

Nasser Hussain is different. It's not just that he was the first England captain from the Asian community: part of his success in blazing that trail has been that we often forget that he is Asian, and the word "community" is just not Nasser. He is a singular man, more intense than virtually all his fellow English cricketers, more driven, more outspoken, more bloody-minded. In the ranks, he was sometimes selfish; as captain, he converted that into a positive force, powerful enough to change a culture.

His departure, while abrupt and faintly puzzling, fitted his personality: it, too, was different. On a grey Monday evening in Birmingham, he became the first England captain to pack it in between back-to-back Tests, the first to quit twice in five months, and the first since Mike Brearley to go out on a sequence of good results - three wins and a draw in his final four Tests.

Brearley left the stage in 1981, wreathed in glory. Every captain afterwards, from Keith Fletcher to Alec Stewart, had been wreathed in failure of some kind: either sacked (Fletcher, Bob Willis, David Gower twice, Mike Gatting, Stewart) or dropped (John Emburey) or instantly forgotten (Chris Cowdrey) or resigning in hair-tearing exasperation (Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton). Hussain goes on his own terms, covered not in triumph or disaster, but in respect. That alone is quite a feat.

Many are the sportsmen who talk about giving 100 per cent. Nasser really did put the whole of himself into the captaincy: his proud heart, his flexible mind, his brittle bones. By the end of each season, he was knackered Hussain, bug-eyed and tetchy. He might have lasted longer if he had found a way of performing within himself, as the bowlers say. But that wouldn't have been his style. Last Thursday he found that the team had moved on in his absence and were already attuned to Michael Vaughan's milder ways. He got out of the kitchen not because he couldn't stand the heat, but because he couldn't stand the idea of lowering it.

His results stand up well. Of the 19 men to have captained England in 10 Tests or more, he stands sixth in terms of proportion of wins, with 38 per cent. But this table, even more than most, needs to be handled with care. Only three captains have managed 40 per cent, and two of them - Peter May (20 wins in 41 Tests) and Len Hutton (11 in 23) - played in an era when half of England's opponents (New Zealand, India and Pakistan) were fairly hopeless.

The table is topped by Brearley (18 wins in 31 Tests), whose managerial genius was accompanied by a knack for avoiding the champions of his time, the West Indians - he left them to Ian Botham (no wins out of 12 Tests, nine of them against West Indies). Hussain is better judged against his peers of the last 20 years. The main captains of the Eighties, Gower and Gatting as well as Botham, won about one Test in nine. In the early Nineties, Gooch dragged that up to one in three and a half. Under Atherton and Stewart, it slipped back to one in four. Hussain's 17 wins in 45 Tests represent a marked improvement, and if the last two came against the pushovers of Zimbabwe, not one of the rest has been lightly earned in an age when most Test sides are very evenly matched.

More than victories, he brought a new attitude. His friend Atherton, the captain occasionally known as Iron Mike, could not infect the other players with his own steel. To the general sports fan - a more and more vital figure as cricket was pushed to the margins by its own conservatism - the England team remained a joke waiting to happen. Hussain changed that, infusing the whole set-up with his own fierce pride.

After only a year as captain, he had built a team with a core of solid metal - Atherton and Trescothick, himself and Thorpe and the young Vaughan (still mortal then), Stewart reinvented as a middle-order batsman-keeper, Craig White lifted off the slush pile, Gough and Caddick. A settled opening pair with both bat and ball, plenty of experience and grit: if that core had remained intact, the 2002-03 Ashes might have been a contest.

Duncan Fletcher played a big part too, with his terse sang froid and real-world know-how. Together, these two contrasting characters, who had never met when they were appointed, turned out to be the most harmonious and effective of England's captain-coach combinations.

But as much as coaching has grown in the past decade, the England captaincy is still a massive undertaking. Hussain undertook it massively. His greatest achievement, in an age when cricketers tend to shrug and let the top job go to the best player, was to show just how much captaincy matters. How good was he? Very.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Wisden 2003