Nasser Hussain is Mr. England at the moment

TED CORBETT

AS Nasser Hussain stepped forward at Lord's to accept the Man of the Match award only a few minutes after receiving the winning cheque, the symbolism was quite clear.

-N. BALAJI

Not only had he dominated the victory over India in the first Test but he had also underlined the fact that he was totally in charge of England. Nasser Hussain is Mr. England at the moment; long may he reign.

He is third - behind the gifted Peter May who led one of the strongest teams England have produced and cerebral Mike Brearley who capitalised on Ian Botham's strength and Bob Willis's wickets - in the pantheon of great captains.

He has passed Ray Illingworth and Len Hutton, generally acknowledged to be the finest tacticians since the Second World War, before the Lord's Test began and his 170-run victory edged him above his friend Mike Atherton, England captain for a record 54 times.

His achievements are beyond question. From a low point when Hussain took charge England rank third in the world, for all the defeat in the recent tri-series there is a genuine respect for their hopes of winning the World Cup and the Holy Grail of a successful Ashes tour now seems a realistic proposition.

Despite the power batting of Adam Gilchrist, the old enemies the Waugh brothers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and 13 years of failure England expect to wrench the Ashes from the Kangaroo's pouch when they begin the Test series in November. After all they have just won in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, given a good account of themselves in India and New Zealand and defeated Sri Lanka at home comfortably.

He began with a defeat at home by New Zealand and there is the Ashes humiliation and the home draw with Pakistan to cause him discomfort. But the improvement is unmistakable and there is no doubt that he has forged a team of steel.

English cricket had begun to accept failure. Now they have results and all on the back of Hussain's dynamic leadership, his tactical acumen and his zest for the job.

It has been a long road for the little lad who left Madras hand in hand with his father Joe, a distinguished local cricketer, to begin a new life in south-eastern England 30 years ago.

He began with coaching at his father's cricket school, progress through the England under-age ranks, a switch from leg breaks to batting, glory at university, a bumpy ride with Essex and an in-and-out start with England.

There will be those who suggest that the mark of his homeland is still on the most passionate, one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable captains among the 73 who have led England since 1877.

What brings about this fine record? After all, at 34, he has never risen above the benchmark of 40 runs an innings which makes for an outstanding Test batsman. He averages 37.05, 13 below Steve Waugh, his Ashes rival this autumn, and not even best in an England batting line-up with averages weighed down by the misery years.

His personal record since he took charge as captain in 1999 is slightly worse: 34 Tests, 59 innings, 1896 runs and four centuries. In theory it is moderate, but add to that his leadership, his brilliant fielding and the timing of his 10 centuries and you have a far clearer picture of the finest England captain since Brearley stepped down after the high point of 1981.

Hussain is admired from afar because there are clear indications that England have cast off the shadow of 88 Tests in which Graham Gooch and Atherton contrived to produce only 23 victories in nine years; and the 15 years since their last grand conquest under Mike Gatting in Australia.

The Queen has applauded that improvement by handing him an OBE, his picture appears almost daily in one of the 11 British national newspapers that still see cricket reporting as a staple of their sports coverage and his image is of a sunny, smiling man, with a happy family life and an unblemished personal life.

It is an accurate picture but there is another side to this fascinating man.

"Can you think of a single word that characterises a dressing room led by Nasser?" I asked an old international. He paused for half a minute and then said: "Wary."

It is widely known that he has a fierce temper, and that players and background staff who fall below the high standards he sets for himself and everyone else may hear descriptions of their character coloured by language more fitted for the street. If he is out to a bad decision or as a result of his own poor stroke it is wiser not to be anywhere near his peg when he returns.

One witness to the variations in the Hussain mood told me: "On the one hand you have the kind, considerate captain who says to a new boy 'Come over here son; I want you to get changed at this seat between me and Alec Stewart for this Test' and on the other hand there is a man who lets his players know what he wants and is furious if they don't deliver.

"He can be all things to all men: urbane, wise, discreet, helpful and witty. He inspires confidence among his men, but he is also feared.

"If he and Duncan Fletcher sit quietly in one corner, ticking off points on their fingers, maybe even writing down the odd idea, you can see the rest of the players growing in the certainty that the plans being discussed will be successful.

"If those plans are thwarted, if a player under-performs or the team has a bad day, watch out. The signs of disapproval are awesome, unforgettable and leave a permanent mark."

Of course, these are the characteristics of any great man: Nelson, Napoleon and Churchill had their fearsome side and while it is unthinkable to compare him to these legends there is no doubt that Hussain is on top of his own cricketing world at the moment and that many another team would love him to be their leader.

As for his own future his suggestion that he might consider his options after the World Cup prompted Lord MacLaurin, Chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, to write, begging him to think again.

Hussain is too proud to continue for a minute longer than his natural lifespan but while he is in charge England will be strong and his successor will have a vastly improved base on which to build.