Hussain's voice finally being heard

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW With the England tour starting in earnest tomorrow, the new vice-captain demonstrates to Ian Stafford why Mike Atherton chose him as his right-hand man
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Nasser Hussain is larking about as usual with a few mates when I arrive, a matter of seven minutes late for our appointment. In an instant the England cricket vice-captain is giving me a lesson about telling the time.

"When the big hand points straight up and the small hand points toward the number four, that means the time is four o'clock," he says, rather helpfully, with a broad grin on his cheeky chappie face. He then proceeds to talk at a hundred miles an hour before ending with: "By the way, I've got a splitting headache, so I'm a bit quieter than usual."

If this is quiet, then maybe a migraine might be the answer.

Then it is down to business. The talk is about his sudden emergence from talented drop-out to the new star of English cricket. Hussain, who made his debut in 1990 but then stuttered through seven Tests in five years and a smattering of false dawns, finally came good this summer with a couple of hundreds against India and a further two half-centuries against the bowling might of Pakistan. So good, in fact, that he is now No 2 to his old chum Mike Atherton on this winter's tour of Zimbabwe and New Zealand. England play their initial first-class game against Mashonaland tomorrow.

So why has it taken the 28-year-old so long to confirm the talent that everyone in the game knew he possessed? "I made the England team so quickly I was barely out of university," he recalls. "I was pleased how I took to Test cricket, in terms of the pressure, but if I'm honest I accept that my technique was not up to it.

"I used to go into England nets and ask myself who was there who I could impress. I'd then start playing a few shots - bang, bang - get out a couple of times, but wouldn't care because it was only a net. The point was, though, it did matter.

"I was unlucky in that I broke my hand during my debut series in the West Indies, but I didn't score runs consistently enough, and didn't do it when it most mattered. The English system, when your immediate form decides whether you are in or out, didn't help either."

During this time Hussain acquired a bit of a naughty-boy image as well, not helped by being dropped by Essex after a dressing-room fracas with Mark Ilott. He grins wryly at his mischievous past, before delivering an explanation.

"My only fault was that I was always thinking about the game, and always making suggestions. When I was 18 and 19 there were long-established players like Neil Foster in the dressing-room who had played a hell of a lot of cricket. You can imagine that it didn't always go down too well when I kept suggesting things from the field. Politically, I should have kept quiet, but that's the way I always play cricket. I suppose that's how I got the image."

He goes on to make a further point to prove how such events are now in the past. "When I arrived at Edgbaston for the first Test against India this summer, a fax was waiting wishing me luck from everyone in the Essex team, and even in the Essex offices. It was organised by Mark Ilott."

As the England A captain of last winter's tour to Pakistan, and now this winter's vice-captain, Hussain has no fears about keeping his mouth shut. "I'm exactly the same person as I was a few years ago, but the difference is that I can say all these things now."

What may well be seen to be the watershed in Hussain's Test career came on the back of the 1993 winter tour to the West Indies. The Essex batsman found himself out of favour for all five Test matches. "I carried the drinks in all of them," he says, "and I can tell you that it wasn't an enjoyable experience."

The repercussions could have been serious. "I came back to England and I let my head drop," he admits. "As a result I had a bad summer and failed to make any winter tour at all. That's when I went back to my wife and told her there were two directions I could go; either to work for Essex in the marketing department and become a stock county player, or give it another go, work hard on my technique, speak to the likes of Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher, and get back into the England set-up."

His wife could see that there was no real choice. "She told me that I'd be grumpy if I just played country cricket for the next 10 years, and that I was still young. It was a big commitment from her, because we'd just been married and I went down to Cape Town to play and work on my game."

He emerged in 1995 as a confident batsman streaming with runs. It was not enough to get him instant selection for England, but when the winter tour parties were being announced, Hussain sat eagerly by the radio. "It had been my best season, I'd scored 1,900 runs, and I was desperately disappointed when the chairman went from Hick to Illingworth in his alphabetical list!"

His mood was to last just a few seconds because Hussain then heard his name announced as captain of the England A party to Pakistan. "I saw that as a great honour, I really did. I could have sulked, or just gone through the motions, but I decided to give it a good crack. We had a very good side - players like Knight and Gallian, Headley and Giddins - and I soon forgot about playing in South Africa. When my brother heard the news he rang me up and told me it could be a blessing in disguise. I think he was right."

John Emburey, the team manager, also played a part in Hussain's rehabilitation. "I fully expected him to run the show but, from the first team get-together, he just said: `Nasser, you're the captain, what do you think?' This was an immediate lift in front of the boys, and I'll always be grateful to him for that."

Although he missed out on the one-day squad against India, encouraging phone calls from both Gooch and Atherton kept Hussain's spirits up, and when he started to produce big scores just prior to the first Test against India, it was enough to warrant a comeback for England. To say that his subsequent 128 was important is understating the case. It not only dug England out of a hole, and paved their way to victory, it also announced that Nasser Hussain had finally arrived.

"The moment I raised that bat to mark my first Test century was the moment when I finally felt like a Test player," Hussain admits. "I remember that first tour to the West Indies, and sitting in the dressing-room with the likes of Gooch, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith. I thought to myself, `Oh my God, how have I risen to this?' But now I'm playing with guys I've grown up with in cricket, people like Graham Thorpe and Dominic Cork. When I got that ton I finally filled my shoes. And I did it in front of Gavaskar and the Indians, and commentators like Boycott and Gower. These are men who really count."

Boosted by his contribution to a winning first Test, Hussain continued to score heavily in his favourite No 3 batting position, and now finds himself as not only Atherton's deputy for the winter tour, but also the favourite to take over if the captain calls it a day. It is something Hussain is very grateful for, but the past few years have taught him to take nothing for granted.

"It's really nice to hear people talking about me as the next captain, and if it came my way, I wouldn't turn it down, but 18 months is a long time in cricket and, as I've learnt, things can change very quickly. The bottom line is that I've got to keep scoring runs. That's best for me and for England, although if anyone wants my help on tour, as the vice- captain I would naturally provide it."

A man full of confidence again, Hussain is therefore looking forward to the next three months. Despite a 2-0 home defeat by Pakistan - "bloody good bowling side, but our batters should have saved us in at least one of the two defeats" - he is in bullish mood.

"I honestly believe we're going in the right direction," he continues. "We played pretty well against the West Indies in 1995, South Africa last winter, and India, and we should do well this winter. But the be-all and end-all is Australia next summer. If we go down something like 3-0 at home then it's right back to square one again. That series will be the true yardstick."

It is an Australian attitude that Hussain will adopt for his winter. "We really ought to beat Zimbabwe. We'll have to play badly not to, whether it's home, away or on the moon. New Zealand won't be easy on their green pitches, but we should beat them too.

"Maybe we should act like the Australians do when they come over here. They have an arrogance and a disrespect for our game, and their view is that they've come over to hammer the Poms. We should adopt the same stance. We're better than Zimbabwe, let's stroll into Harare and go out and show them why we are better than them."

That's not very English, Nasser. "I know," he replies, still smirking. "But why not? We're always putting our game down, yet we now have the making of a very good Test side. We've got players with class and, perhaps more importantly in Test cricket, bottle. Let's go and show people we can play."

Rather like he did at Lord's. It may not quite be Henry V stuff pre-Agincourt, but Nasser Hussain is sounding suspiciously like a captain. Eighteen months is, indeed, a long time in cricket for a young man who has clearly grown up.

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