First knight of the Poms

From national hero to Essex man of the moment. Andrew Longmore stays on the Nasser Hussain trail
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On a dank morning at Hove, Nasser Hussain was reluctant to talk. "You know what these Australians are like," he said. "Don't want to be in all the newspapers for them, do I?" As if the sight of Nas standing arms aloft under the tabloid heading "Nas two see you" in celebration of his double hundred at Edgbaston, quite apart from a ghosted column likening himself to Boycott, and a thousand other publicity inches would not be enough to provoke the Australians into instant retaliation. Barely a quarter of the summer gone and they must be sick of the sight of him.

Back in the bosom of his county team, England's superman had changed into his Clark Kent civvies, desperate not to appear showy or arrogant. A "nice knock, Nas," from a passing Sussex player brought only mumbled thanks. Only this month, Mike Atherton had detailed just how slowly the adrenalin pumps on, well, dank days at Hove and Hussain, a sensitive man, was deeply conscious that he had scored almost as many runs in one innings for England as he had for Essex the whole of the season: 226 to 207, to be precise. That had not stopped the whole Essex team erupting in pleasure at the success of their mate.

They were batting at The Oval at the time, where the television can be watched with ease, even by the next man in. As the third of his fours off an over from Shane Warne sped to the cover boundary to bring up his 200, spectators at The Oval were disturbed by raucous celebrations from the open window of the visiting players' balcony. Up the motorway, Hussain's extravagant salute was aimed as much at his county colleagues, who returned the favour in a chaotic telephone call to the England dressing-room later that day.

Not a man given to great shows of affection, Hussain thanked his team for their support in a touching and informal little speech at The Grand in Brighton the night before the match against Sussex, his first as the nation's darling. He also saved his Man of the Match champagne for Graham Gooch's barbecue last Tuesday. "That was a nice touch, wasn't it?" said Mark Ilott.

Ilott and Hussain made their county debuts on the same day, back in 1988. After weathering one or two early tantrums, not usually initiated by the mild-mannered Ilott, the pair have developed a firm friendship. "When he was getting to his double hundred, the hairs on my neck were standing on end," Ilott said. "It was almost as if my brother had done it. We had a game to win at The Oval, yet we were just as interested in how he was doing." They still gave him some stick, mind, reminding Hussain that Paul Grayson, his replacement as Essex number three, had scored the first century by an Essex number three this season.

If the step up from county to Test cricket can seem monumental, as Ilott well knows, the step down can be equally daunting. One moment, a 22,000 crowd and a nation's attention; the next a sprinkling of deck chairs and the rustling of sandwich wrappers. "This is your bread-and-butter," Ilott says, gesturing across the field where the Sussex batsmen are struggling against a moving ball, the Essex fielders against a chill wind. (Ilott himself had a thigh strain and was on temporary 12th man duty.) "Nas is safe in the England side for some time now. I remember once coming back from a Test match in '93 when we had a big game, a Benson and Hedges semi-final, and feeling the difference. I'm not saying I was any less inspired ... [he trails off] but it's everyone's ambition to play for England."

Hussain has performed his pre-match routine, which involves stroking a succession of thrown half-volleys through mid-off and mid-on. It might seem casual, but the ritual has a technical significance. Brought up in the conflicting cultures of Madras and Ilford, Hussain has retained a wristy Indian flair in his shot-making which has had to be adapted to the demands of international cricket. The classical elegance of his innings at Edgbaston, the number of fours which sped through the "v" rather than backward of square, proved how successful the modifications had been.

"He's what we call an inside out batsman," Graham Gooch said. "Some players like Viv Richards and Mark Waugh play naturally through the onside, Nas opens the face of the bat. That's OK. We didn't want to change that, we just had to make little refinements, particularly in defence, in putting the full face of the bat to the ball." Simple stuff, the sort of advice plenty of players are given and do not heed. But Hussain has a passion for batting and a matching determination. If that way was going to make him more runs, make him the best player in the world, what did he have to do?

"Hit thousands of balls, day after day, that's all," Paul Prichard, his county captain, explained. "Most would have been happy with Nas's game, but he's a perfectionist in his equipment and technique. He'll think about it himself and then work at it. He's like Goochie in that." And if anyone had a stake in Hussain's double hundred it was Gooch, who first saw Nas in the nets at the Ilford Indoor School. "He was eight and bowled leg breaks which hit the roof."

Twenty-one years and a few well-publicised spats on, the moustachioed old warrior could be found in deep conversation with his talented protege on the square at Hove. Gooch's message was simple enough, but a rite of passage none the less. "I just told him to cash in while he's in good form, not to sit back and think I've got 200, I'm OK for a few games now. Kenny Barrington used to say that to me: 'Cash in because who knows when you'll get a bad run.' Believe me, it'll come. Nas knows that, he's a good disciple of the game.

"He's got fire in his belly, Nas, and even if it boils over sometimes, I'd much rather have that than someone who's very casual about the whole thing. He wants to do well and there's nothing wrong with that."

A stirring among the green- jerseyed pupils of Southgate School marked the first entrance of the great Aussie-slayer, face obscured by the guard of his fading blue England helmet. The reception fell a little short of the Last Night of the Proms, but it was impressive enough for sleepy Hove.

A flick of those strong wrists and long leg was in business from the first ball, the shot of a man with runs in the bank. The rest was a little more circumspect. Two crashing fours through the covers, then just as third gear was being engaged, a misjudgement of length and line, an index finger from Dickie Bird and a huddle of Sussex jubilance around Vasbert Drakes the wicket-taker. The deckchairs flapped and conversations began again. Hove was at ease. County cricket can be deceptively hard on days like these, even for national icons.

Outstanding innings: Ten England knocks to cherish

1926 England v Australia, The Oval

Jack Hobbs 100

The Master's only Test century on his home ground, made on a rain-affected pitch. Sutcliffe made 161 and England regained the Ashes after 14 years.

1938 England v Australia, The Oval

Len Hutton 364

A monumental feat of concentration and organisation lasting over 13 hours and 17 minutes, which contributed to a record defeat of Australia, by an innings and 579 runs.

1948 England v Australia, Old Trafford

Denis Compton 145 not out.

Compton mishooked a ball into his face when he was on four and resumed his innings at 119 for 5, when he hooked Ray Lindwall without fear. It was Compton's summer, but the match was rain-hit and finally drawn.

1957 England v W Indies, Edgbaston

Peter May 285 not out

The taming of Sonny Ramadhin. The little maestro had taken 7 for 49 in the first innings. May and Colin Cowdrey put on 411 in the second. The match was drawn, and Ramadhin was never the same.

1963 England v West Indies, Lord's

Ted Dexter 70

Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith were ferocious, but Lord Ted was living out every schoolboy's dream innings. Drawn, but one of the great Tests.

1977 England v India, Calcutta

Tony Greig 103

Made against Prasanna, Bedi and Chandrasekhar on a turning pitch when England were struggling at 90 for 4. The century took nearly seven hours, but was worth every minute. England won and went 2-0 up in the series.

1977 England v Australia, Headingley

Geoffrey Boycott 191

Another piece of folklore. Boycott's 100th first-class hundred, choreographed for his home ground in a match which ended with England regaining the Ashes.

1981 England v Australia, Headingley

Ian Botham 149 not out

Needs no introduction. If you don't know about it, go and play basketball.

1992 England v Pakistan, Headingley

Graham Gooch 135

Against Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, Gooch made a seaming Headingley special seem like a shirtfront. No one else could lay a bat on them. England won.

1995 England v S Africa, Johannesburg

Michael Atherton 185 not out

England had to bat for two days. The England captain stayed firm for almost 11 hours and 165 overs, all to get a draw.