Hussain clears debt with guts and application

Former England captain emerges from tunnel of self-absorption to hit superb century and atone for surly reaction to resignation

James Lawton
Friday 15 August 2003 00:00

At one minute past five here yesterday Nasser Hussain stopped the clock on the worst days of his cricket life. He scored his 13th Test century, but that is a statistic. The story was that he found again the best of himself.

He was no longer caught in a tumult of angst. He was a great batsman doing a mighty turn for his team.

Of course, in the broad sweep of his career, Hussain didn't owe anybody anything when he walked to the wicket and he flinched only momentarily when he was introduced as Ed Smith, the latest long shot up from the Shires.

Everyone knew who he was, however, and, to the huge benefit of England's imperilled cause, this included Hussain himself. He looked like a man who had finally emerged from that tunnel of self-absorption and personal crisis which had heaped damage on his reputation and brought English Test cricket a sense, it seemed, of almost climactic futility.

This certainly was the short-term debt Hussain knew he had to redeem as Graeme Smith's potentially rampant South Africans crowded around the bat after the cheap dismissal of Hussain's embattled successor, Michael Vaughan, and Marcus Trescothick.

Hussain stood firm - and a former England captain said a little later: "It seems to me Nasser has got his head straight. He's put away old baggage and he's a batsman again.'' This was announced quite imperiously with his first scoring stroke. It was a beautifully carved boundary through the covers off Makhaya Ntini, the 10-wicket destroyer of England earlier in the series.

Ntini's shoulders slumped and when you look back on the day it was one of the pivotal moments. Mark Butcher led the response to the early setbacks, but it was Hussain who always seemed to be in ultimate charge of the resistance. This became a reality after tea when he launched himself into a series of sumptuous off-drives.

Though this third Test match is still delicately poised on a wicket expected to be an ambush site by mid-afternoon tomorrow, Hussain serviced his debt with both guts and application that impressively restored his credit rating as a Test cricketer of the first rank.

Forgiveness for the petulant mindset which led to his shockingly abrupt decision to resign after England were outplayed in the first drawn Test at Edgbaston - and a surly emotional hangover that made the English dressing-room a place of grinding tension during the thrashing administered by the cyclonic Smith and his team at Lord's - is unlikely to be instantaneous. Hussain's defection as captain left a rawness unlikely to be healed entirely by one day's brilliant work, and some will say that Vaughan's disastrous early departure - in terms at least of his own immediate confidence and authority - was another by-product of the sudden pressure brought by Hussain's ditching of his responsibilities as captain.

His achievement was still vast, however, yesterday. It was no less than to remind the nation that here indeed, when you got right down to it, was a player passionate about the need for English cricket to compete properly at the highest level. And as he applied himself so thoroughly to the task, you were reminded of the meaning of most of his captaincy - a relentless pursuit of higher competitive standards.

So, he was briefly consumed by his disappointments, his sense of an unravelling of a grand ambition. He lost touch with his own trumpeted declaration that success could come only through the commitment of a team rather than the whimsy of an individual.

But there was nothing whimsical about Hussain when he reannounced himself yesterday. There were certainly some anxious moments: on 97, he played an alarming shot through his legs, and before he reached his century another run came from an overthrow which threatened the wicket of his partner, Smith.

But Hussain's nerve held brilliantly and, as the shadows came to Trent Bridge, England plainly were back in the series which had threatened to pass them by.

For England there are still huge problems of policy, of gathering together the strength of a national game which has never seemed in more disarray. Butcher was Butcher, defiant and possibly maintaining an encouraging record of never having scored a century for a losing England team. Hussain had cleared away the fog and batted in a way that might have spread doubts in a South African team that some hard critics believe had been immensely flattered by the astonishing form of Smith and their crushing victory at Lord's.

But none of this is reason to believe that crisis still does not lurk at every corner of English cricket's immediate future.

These, however, were considerations which could be reasonably put on one side at one minute past five: when Hussain did more than complete a superb century. He had again found a point to play the game that has dominated his life.

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