Hussain is the linchpin of England team


FOR reasons no-one can understand, Nasser Hussain has begun to talk about retirement and in particular about standing down from the England captaincy after the World Cup 15 months hence.

Don't even think about it, Nasser. You'll live to regret the day you first thought "I wonder when I should hang up my boots, pads, gloves and thinking cap."

It seems odd that he should make this statement as it was being announced that he had been given an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List and already Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board has said he will do his best to change Hussain's mind.

If Lamb - really the Hon. Tim Lamb, son of a noble lord, so he knows all about the higher social sphere into which Hussain has flown - can talk him around, this country ought to be eternally grateful. We need Hussain to turn a fairly ordinary side into an organisation greater than the sum of its parts.

Until someone comes along who can average 50 with the bat or five wickets per Test Hussain is the linchpin of the England team. But he will be 35 shortly after the World Cup and sees that as a date on which his ability may begin to deteriorate. Perhaps he believes he will be in the team on sufferance while his batting average drops to single figures and his fielding requires him to lead his men from long stop.

He should clear his mind of all such fantasy. The best England captains of the last 50 years include Ray Illingworth, who did not lead the side until he was way beyond his 37th birthday and who was 41 when he did so for the last time.

Mike Brearley, who began aged 35 and made a comeback in his 40th year, retired from all cricket soon after his return against Australia in 1981; Illingworth was still leading Yorkshire after he celebrated his 50th birthday and once told me that he would have been playing in his sixties if his back had stayed supple. Besides isn't Steve Waugh still going strong at 36, did not Arjuna Ranatunga reach 36 before he stood down and, in a geographical area where youth is idealised, both Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards were around 40 when they were in charge of West Indies. Age did not weary any of these exceptional men.

Cricket has always been an older man's game, so full of complex mental processes that it takes years to absorb all its lessons; and so reliant on wisdom that only the deeply experienced seem able to understand what it takes to bat and bowl, to set fields and motivate the young.

At Test level it may not be possible to say, as Emrys Davies, the Glamorgan opening batsman did once, that he batted throughout his forties "from memory." Try that at Perth, or Sabina Park or the Oval even if Richard Hadlee, aged 39, and Courtney Walsh, aged 38, are the bowlers. Besides Hussain has so much to offer that he should not be looking at retirement; rather concentrating on getting a second wind.

Some of his opponents in England are already celebrating his statement by saying that at least there is time for England to pick out the right successor, to send both Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick to a public relations course to learn the right techniques for dealing with the media and perhaps even testing their resolve on some sort of exercise which will split the men with the right stuff from ordinary mortals.

I have my doubts about days spent trying to climb trees, driving blindfolded, crossing rivers using only a piece of string and a twig or leaping from rocks into deep gorges; but yes, of course, we must teach future leaders all we can. Surely it is better to stick with the most successful of all recent captains rather than take the first opportunity to look for a successor.

There is another point. Vaughan has been injured so often that, for all his obvious class, he is still uncertain of his place; Trescothick is already established, but suppose he has a trot of bad scores and is dropped or he suffers a series of injuries. Neither of those possibilities is beyond the experience of the best of cricketers and for all the talk of Vaughan and Trescothick forming a new opening partnership for England we could easily find that England leave for Australia next autumn with two players presently unknown to open the innings.

In 1980 Bob Willis, then the England vice-captain, 31, and ten years into his Test career, was shipped home from the Caribbean for an operation amid predictions that he would never play in Tests again.

In 1981 his bowling won the most memorable Test of the century; in 1982 he was the England captain. If the world can spin round in someone's favour so quickly it can certainly do the opposite. Hussain and his enemies should remember that this sporting life has its September 11th and its April Fool mornings as well as its high days and holidays.

I once tried to console Jack Russell, in one of his spells in the wilderness, with the Willis story but a few months later he announced that he would not play for England again. Since then he has been at the centre of Gloucestershire's four successive Cup triumphs and, as Alec Stewart had dropped out of the reckoning, he could even have been on this winter's tours.

Besides, what will Hussain do when he announces that he no longer wants to play Test cricket. Settle down at Chelmsford and lead Essex? The common answer from men contemplating this course is "I hope to pick up work in the media."

Not all are suited to it, for all the new insights we obtain from Ravi Shastri, Mark Taylor, Robin Jackman, Ian Healy, Graeme Pollock and Graham Gooch. Stewart has found a few spots on Sky TV this winter and hosts a programme on talkSport radio but with competition from Chris Broad, Chris Cowdrey, Willis, Paul Allott, David Gower and Ian Botham there is not much room left for new faces, even if Richie Benaud is on the point of retirement.

Captains as clever as Benaud in the 1960s, Brearley in the late 1970s and Hussain today are a rarity which I suppose accounts for new noises about bringing back Hansie Cronje from his enforced retirement. It's understandable, particularly after the 3-0 whitewash suffered by South Africa in Australia last month.

It won't happen. The world community of cricket nations would not stand for Cronje making his way back into the international game but he was a towering presence - as 27 wins in 53 Tests demonstrates - and the South Africans have not been able to fill the gap.

These calls come far too soon after his appalling crimes and to say, as their president Percy Sonn has said, that Cronje is working in one township is snatching at straws. It is just a sign of how desperate South Africa has become in the face of the all-conquering Aussies and the knowledge that nothing much will change when the encounter is repeated on home territory.

Unless they find a captain who can bring the side to new heights.

Hussain makes a world of difference but, as we all know, he has a gross weakness. Despite two successive triumphs with the coin in India, the poor man cannot win the toss often enough.

It's no use telling him that each time his penny spins in the air he has the same chance of winning. Don't remind him of 14 successive defeats at the toss. Find a solution.

Well, it seems that on New Year's Day, the answer to his prayer arrived. The new euro coin always lands on the same side. Something to do with the weight distribution. If Hussain takes one to the toss in the next dozen or so Tests before the World Cup he will surely change his mind about retirement.