Devoured by the system

IN the end, the fire that drove Nasser Hussain consumed him. It can happen to the brightest of stars.


Nasser Hussain wasn't given the cover that he rightly expected from the administration, both in Australia and during the World Cup.-Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES

IN the end, the fire that drove Nasser Hussain consumed him. It can happen to the brightest of stars. His intensity, such a hallmark of his leadership, was spent fighting the very people that should have supported him. If English cricket looks within, rather than gloat over the new glamour boy in their midst, they will realize they have much to answer.

Hussain's fire was spent fighting a system that sent an unfit team to Australia last year and did the disappearing act over the whole Zimbabwe muddle during the World Cup. On both counts he must have felt himself isolated; first, when he quite literally had to do the rounds of Englishmen playing the leagues in Australia to get enough fit men to form a side and then when he discovered that part of his job description was to know enough about international relations to take a decision on whether or not to play in Zimbabwe. Both decisions should have been taken for him, instead he found his energies diverted from his main job. It was frustrating and he showed it.

Towards the end, much like Allan Border in his last year as captain, Hussain was reduced to a grumpy leader, the possessor of a sarcastic turn of phrase at press conferences. But without quite having the longevity of Border, or indeed his batting ability, Hussain was able to turn things around for his side, like the feisty Australian did in the late 80s.

England are a better side today, indeed a far better side, than they were in 1999 when Hussain was first given the job. Then, the air of defeat hung heavy over them, if there was a direction to their cricket it was very difficult to spot and words attracted far greater attention than deeds. The word `steel' only found mention on railway tracks and in the odd kitchen! It was in such a situation that Hussain first met Duncan Fletcher, a quiet man who knew what path England needed to walk on.

They forged a fine partnership. It seemed, for the first time in years, that England were more committed to doing things than speaking about them. The turnaround was painful but significantly, was achieved away from home, away from the time capsule that the English cricket system had found itself in. In Pakistan and in Sri Lanka, two places that England had traditionally travelled poorly in, they showed a lot of determination. That was Hussain's character coming through.

England, like him, were tough and driven. And they seemed to have ambition, an admirable trait that society often casts aspersions upon. Again, that was Hussain making his presence felt.

If Hussain had a fault, it was that he did not channelise his anger enough. And often it spilt over on to the field. He grew more demonstrative, seemed to revel in being the dictator and started showing a streak of impatience. He seemed to want results too quickly, often resorting to strange bowling changes and field placements and one got the feeling that he started taking the resultant criticism to heart. Patience, and an outer calm, two other qualities that good leaders seem to possess, appeared to lose out in the confrontation with restlessness. It increasingly seemed he had a point to prove to his detractors.

Hence, the poor gesture in the NatWest final last year. Having completed his only one-day hundred, a fortuitous rather than skilful effort, but a hundred all the same, he gestured to the press box, pointing out the number three on his shirt. In a less combative state of mind, he might have let the scoreboard do the talking but it was already clear that there was far too much in his mind. The rage that had almost destroyed him as a young cricketer, that had set him apart from his less ambitious colleagues was returning to haunt him.

It didn't help him that England picked a wounded side for the Ashes, something he had set his heart upon. His team-mates weren't tough enough and Hussain wasn't good enough as a batsman to lead from the front. His temperament marked him out to be the first on the battle-field, his talent indicated that leading from, say, number six might have been more prudent. But I suspect it was South Africa that broke his back. It would have broken anybody's.

The decision on whether or not to play in Zimbabwe had to come from the political leaders, failing which, it had to come from the England Cricket Board. Neither seemed willing and Hussain found his World Cup ambitions being derailed in political dithering. It was an emotional phase and his colleague, Darren Gough, who was with us in our World Cup studio, often spoke about it. There was no surprise at all that he quit as England's one-day captain after that. A less combative man might have given it all up but Hussain thought he could rejuvenate himself and eke out another year as Test captain.

It was too much because I suspect he started on the assumption that he was isolated. Maybe he was right because the media, who only a year earlier had compared him to Mike Brearley, now wanted him to go because a young man with no experience had won a tournament in charge. But to be fair to the fighter in him, he gave himself a chance and when he found he didn't have the energy to overcome some dreadful bowling by his team, he gave it up.

Now two questions arise and again, they must be addressed by the administration. Is Hussain good enough any more to play for England as a batsman and is that decision going to be taken on emotion, in a spirit of thanksgiving, or on cold facts? My suspicion is that he won't last the end of the series. The other is: are England expecting too much out of a fine player and inexperienced leader? Will Vaughan be the Taylor to Hussain's Border? Will he be able to build on what Hussain has bequeathed to English cricket? More important, can he continue to score the runs that England so desperately need?

I suspect the real answer though, lies off the field. England need a Hussain in their administration. I don't think he will ever be able to get there though!