The Interview; Nasser Hussain: Passion player turns director

The new England captain has made it clear: his team must give everything.
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY BEFORE 10pm under the Sydney floodlights one night last February, Nasser Hussain played a tired, crotchety, untimely shot against Shane Warne. He missed the turning ball and was stumped by a country mile - England lost a match they were winning easily.

It was not a clever stroke; actually it was a daft one, whether in a Test match, a one-day international or playing for Upper Clogthorpe thirds. Hussain had accumulated 58 from 98 balls, England needed 35 off six overs but when he went, visibly shattered at the end of a long tour, the dam burst, wickets tumbled, the first final of the triangular one-day series was gone and soon after so was the second. Warne, of course, milked the moment for all it was worth, being happy to regale the story of how he had goaded the batsman into the shot, had psyched him out, would do anything to get a wicket.

Maybe, maybe not, but what was certain was that on that evening four months ago the passionate, proud Nasser Hussain looked to have a better chance of becoming the next director-general of the BBC than the next England cricket captain. The job, to begin with, was not up for grabs, and soon afterwards Hussain was left out of England's World Cup squad by way of punishment. The phrase suspect temperament was given another brushing down.

How things were to change and, while what ensued could probably only happen in English cricket, Hussain by this week was not only the leading candidate for the job he was also the only one. Injury to the immediate past captain, Michael Atherton, forced him out of the World Cup squad. The selectors summoned Hussain. Then Nick Knight, the established opener in the one-day side, began to show the sort of form that made watchers wonder if he would ever score another run. The selectors, deciding against backing his reputation, dropped him. Hussain was in.

He opened adequately. Unfortunately, England lost. It became clear to those running the show that Stewart had to go as Test captain, if not as opening batsman and wicketkeeper as well. This had been a policy of job monopoly, the folly of which had seemed obvious to all but the selectors from the time it was approved until the moment Stewart surrendered the gloves in the Fourth Test against Australia in the winter.

Events have conspired in Hussain's favour in those weeks since February. Would the selectors have remembered him and his part in the Ashes - 407 runs at 45.22 - if he had not taken part in the World Cup? Or had he failed? Or had England succeeded - at least somewhat better than falling at the first group stage - with or without him? He had lost out narrowly to Stewart last year, would he ever get the chance? David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, insisted on Friday that he and his panel had always thought a lot of Hussain, he had always been in their thoughts. He did not explain what Hussain, 31, had now that he did not have a year ago.

Nor did the new captain himself. Indeed, it was to his credit that he said he had not changed much as a player, one who cared about winning and losing and was not afraid to demonstrate his passion. "I have been that side of the fence myself," he said in assessing players who might be deemed difficult. "I have not changed in a lot of ways. I am still disappointed when I have let myself down or my team. That will not change at any stage in the future."

He could not have made it clearer what he wants from his players, Hussain expects them to give everything and if they should lose he expects them to hurt. He did not deny, and there is no point in denying, that he has been selfish but there will be no favourites under his regime and no exclusion orders.

Hussain happily indicated that if they were good enough they would be welcome in his dressing room. N Hussain: speciality, dealing with and encouraging awkward sods. "We will be picking the 11 best players against New Zealand. It starts on day one. But we have to be realistic. If we keep comparing ourselves to South Africa and Australia we have to be honest. I'm not going into this job naively, I know what there is to do to get up to that level regularly."

Hussain is not certain how he might differ from his predecessors, Atherton and Stewart, though he admires both. He did not know how he might approach the game tactically, whether he will improvise more or attack more. But - and this already seems significant - he had one chat with the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, on Friday morning, the night after their appointments had been jointly announced. "Duncan mentioned one or two things about body language," he said. "Off the field I always thought Mark Taylor was exemplary in the way he handled himself. It might have been easier with his team but he was brilliant."

Something to aspire to indeed and it is clear that Hussain has thought of how he should conduct himself. He wants no vice-captain to start with: "It's my job and for a couple of matches I think I'll want to do it the way I want to do it."

Passion has run through Hussain's game since he was a boy. It used to manifest itself in the tantrum and the odd bat throwing, and the coffin is still likely to get a kick when he is out. But his relish in being an England player is not open to doubt. He first played back in 1990 - he and Stewart made their debuts together in the historic win in Jamaica - and he had to make two comebacks. Five years ago he made some amendments to his technique designed to keep him stiller in the crease and curb a tendency to open the face of his bat and three years ago he was recalled to the England team.

He has been a fixture in it since - seven hundreds, an average getting on for 40 - and on Atherton's resignation last year he and Stewart were both strong candidates. If it was the old "suspect temperament" that told against Hussain his only previous long-term senior experience as a captain would seem to weaken that observation. He led the England A tour to Pakistan in 1995-96 and was hugely successful. It was a delicate mission because no England team had been to Pakistan since the disastrous trip by Mike Gatting's team in 1986-87. Hussain led a trouble-free tour and a happy, winning team.

There is another aspect to Hussain's elevation. He was born in Madras and is the first member of an ethnic minority to become England captain. He was swift to restate his attachment to the country where he has lived for most of his life but he noticed the support for teams from the sub- continent in the World Cup. "That passion can be tapped and if I can help to do that then of course I will," he said. "It could help England. I hope the fact that my name is Hussain will have an influential effect. Encourage those youngsters and you might unearth a wristy batsman or a wristy bowler."

Unquestionably, Hussain will give his all to the job. "I haven't stuck my head out to be captain of England," he said, though you could tell he wanted it desperately. When Atherton's replacement was being sought and it was clear that Hussain was in the frame he gave several interviews, presumably to make sure that the authorities knew what he had to offer.

He will never be afraid to express his opinion - he has gone on record as saying English cricket is too soft. But on Friday he defended the County Championship as having a role. Playing internationals was no good for anybody, he said. He will be keen, however, to ration the appearances of certain players. "I was desperate to play county cricket after the World Cup but batting really only affects the tiredness of the mind, bowling hurts the body."

He will not be a soft touch in the dressing room, where he will have most of the power. Fletcher will not take up his post until October but stressed the role of the captain. Players needed to know there was only one boss. Hussain said: "There are just two qualities really, ability and toughness. It comes down to that." If nothing else, there will be one boss all right.