Honourable man goes out in style

Nasser Hussain has always been a man of passion so his decision to stand down as England captain would have hurt him far more than he showed.


Nasser Hussain has always been a man of passion so his decision to stand down as England captain would have hurt him far more than he showed.

Nasser Hussain announces his resignation as England team's captain after the final day of the first Test match against South Africa at Edgbaston in Birmingham. "I felt I was a bit tired and stale. Four years is a long time in this job," Hussain said. — Pic. REUTERS-

He captained his country much as he led his working life, a human volcano constantly on the verge of an eruption. Walking away from the job he craved and had invested so much effort in was more painful than any of the broken bones he suffered in the line of duty.

A man given to self-absorption during his early career, the timing of his decision was unequivocally selfless. It might look as if South Africa's showing in the opening Test has brought total chaos to England cricket but, like Alec Stewart, who announced his retirement at the end of this series, Hussain decided to go before the endless speculation undermined the team and his authority over them. In a world given over to rogues and spin doctors it was an honourable gesture.

His claim that he could not raise himself for the hard cricket ahead is disarmingly honest — it may be that his batting may also be afflicted.

For the observant, the clues were there on the opening day, none more so than the zen-like calm with which he treated his wayward bowlers. Six months ago they would have been rollocked every few minutes and deservedly so. It was not his fault England bowled rubbish, and for the first time since he took over the job in 1999, he found he could not make himself do anything about it.

It was in Australia that the seeds for his decision were sown. The Ashes is every England captains Holy Grail. But as for him it ended as a holy mess and one he never really recovered from.

Privately he will feel betrayed by elements of the media, which until recently had compared him with Mike Brearley, arguably England's greatest captain of the modern era. During his tenure journalists liked Hussain for his honesty, something he was true to right until the end.

His aggressive style of leadership, learned in part from Essex's greatest captain, Keith Fletcher, did not sit happily with everyone, though the players under him never complained, at least not publicly. But while his temper occasionally singed an ego or two, nobody could accuse him of skimping on the job.

Like Michael Atherton before him, the captaincy enveloped his waking life and probably his sleeping one too. I remember having dinner with him in Colombo as a tetchy series against Sri Lanka in 2001 was drawing to a head and he told me he had been unable to sleep for a week. England won the final Test and with it the series, but not before the tension had contributed to him ripping a calf muscle in the field.

As the first England captain to have come from an Asian background, he was a role model for many though he never saw himself in those terms. As a young man at Essex, he gloried in failing Norman Tebbit's infamous test — that immigrants should support England unconditionally — as a gesture of pride in his Indian heritage.

Durham-educated, he did not use his science degree or his substantial intelligence during his formative years in the Essex dressing-room. Instead, his confrontational nature, something he put to good use as England captain later on, upset team-mates and Graham Gooch twice, banned him for several games for disruptive behaviour.

On one occasion he did not like the way acting captain Neil Foster was allowing a championship match against Kent to drift and told him so. Foster, never a big Hussain fan, told him to shut up. In the dressing-room at tea, Hussain kicked a cricket case on to fast bowler Mark Ilott's foot and in the ensuing ruck the pair squared up to one another.

Another time at the Oval, he was bowled by a yorker during an important one-day game. But instead of accepting his fate, he returned to the dressing-room cursing the Essex bowlers for not bowling block-hole balls at Surrey's batsmen. The rage had no logic, though once he learned to channel it in a more profitable direction — a process that took at least six years — it helped turn him into the formidable England batsman and captain of recent times. Like his predecessors, he will discover life does not end and new challenges, even beyond cricket, lie in wait. When England's team either side of the millennium is judged by historians, they may well use terms like "Before Nasser" and "After Nasser" to explain the new found rigour the side developed under him. There can be no greater compliment.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003