He is remembered as one of England’s finest captains, a grafter with a no nonsense approach to run scoring and a man who tempered his fiery commitment to the English cause on the field, Nasser Hussain was a cricketer who most would have wanted in their team.
Having enjoyed a baptism of fire during his Test debut against the great West Indies side of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hussain compensated for all his technical deficiencies with a dominant bottom hand grip which helped him to score nearly 6,000 Test match runs and 14 centuries in a 14-year England career.
As England captain, he was as articulate and innovative as they come. Hussain was full of energy and was one of those cricketers who would never give up. He indeed laid the foundations for England’s revival under Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher which in time led England to Ashes glory.
Since retiring from cricket in 2004, like many others Hussain made the immediate switch to the commentary box. Though, not like many others, Hussain’s broadcasting capabilities have made him a razor-sharp observer of England’s fortunes with Sky Sports and he is respected by all in the game.
Stuart Appleby caught up with the former England captain, now 43, during England’s final one-day international of the summer against India at the SWALEC Stadium in Cardiff on Friday 16th September 2011.
Born in Madras (now Chennai) in India, Hussain was brought up by his Indian-born, Essex-based cricket coach of a father and English mother. He moved to England when he was six-years-old and Hussain admitted that he was born into cricket.
“I had no option; it was cricket for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. It was just cricket, cricket, cricket really. As a British Asian you either wanted to be a cricketer or a doctor. I wasn’t bright enough to be a doctor so it had to be cricket,” the 43-year-old said.
“I used to spend every hour down the Ilford Cricket School in the East End of London with my brothers who also went onto play cricket.”
Hussain became renowned for his capabilities with the willow during his career, but interestingly he started off as a young leg spinning prodigy. At the age of 14 he was selected to play for the England Schools Cricket Association, as well as captaining various England-age group teams.
“As a young lad I was a leg spin bowler, I captained England Schools and myself and Michael Atherton (former England captain) used to bowl leg spin together. And then at the age of 15 I just shot up in height and the trajectory just went and I completely lost it. I couldn’t land the ball or if I did land it, it would bounce four times.
“It was quite an horrific experience as a school boy leg spinner. The following year I still couldn’t land it so I either had to work at my batting or give up the game of cricket. I didn’t want to give up cricket so I worked on my batting and slowly that got better and the bowling got worse. I think it was a natural progression.”
Although his manufactured batting technique did hinder his early development as a batsman, Hussain soon made his first-class debut for Essex in 1987 and fondly recalled playing against his cricketing hero in one of his early matches.
“I’ll say this quietly because he is around here somewhere but my cricketing hero was David Gower. I used to love watching him bat and I played against him early on in my career,” says the former Chelmsford star.
“Gower was just a joy to watch really but he is an absolute pain to work with now,” Hussain jokes. “He was an exquisite timer of the ball, very elegant, very laid back – a great player.”
Hussain made his England Test debut against the West Indies at Sabina Park in February 1990 and admitted that he had never thought he would achieve his dream of playing for England.
“It’s phenomenal really, you just don’t ever believe you will do it. You don’t start as a 16-year-old thinking that you will go on to play for England one day. It just happens.
“Graham Gooch (Hussain’s former Essex teammate and one of England’s most successful batsman of all time) tapped me on the shoulder and said you’re going to come with me to the Caribbean and we’re going to play the West Indies. From my era the West Indies were the side to beat,” he said.
“I grew up watching them beat England 5-0, condemning us to a whitewash, so to be playing at short leg when Gordon Greenidge, Sir Vivian Richards and Desmond Hayes were batting was incredible. And then facing the likes of Malcolm Marshall and these sort of guys was a dream come true.”
Despite proving himself capable of mixing it with Test cricket’s best, Hussain had to wait until 1996 to score his first three-figure score in England colours. He struck consecutive centuries in as many months against India at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, respectively, to fully make his mark.
Arguably the biggest difference between the game as it is today compared to the 1990’s is the standard of bowling, particular fast bowling, all over the cricketing world. Boasting a modest Test match average of just a shade above 37, Hussain may have scored even more runs if he had played for England today.
However, he believes that he was privileged to play in an era against fearsome opposition attacks.
“He wasn’t the greatest of all time but he was pretty good, Courtney Walsh (who claimed 519 Test wickets in 132 matches for the West Indies). I mean Walsh must have just looked at me and thought Nasser you can’t bat because every time he bowled at me he got me out,” Hussain laughs.
“His arms and legs were going everywhere and he wasn’t the quickest but quick enough. I think it was just the angles he created. Cricket is all about angles and when it looked like the ball was swinging in, he would then make it go away. Walsh was just too good for me,” Hussain says of the man who sent him trudging back to the Pavilion on seven, separate occasions.
Despite the heroics of Walsh, Hussain still remained adamant that Australian legend Shane Warne is the best player he has played against.
“He was the greatest bowler I faced and his mind games didn’t bother me too much. It was a thrill to play against Warne. He got me out a few times, I got some runs against him, it was an absolute thrill. It was one of the highlights of my career,” he said.
The Victorian-born leg spinner took 708 Test wickets, second only to Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800 victims, and claimed 195 English scalps during 36 Ashes contests.
“You know the blonde hair, the flared trousers, the sledging, the chat and the looks, it was absolutely what you played the game of cricket for to play against people like him. Give me that ahead of a medium pacer from Zimbabwe any day. I loved playing against Australia and Warne, it was a great era to play in.”
In July 1999, Hussain was named England captain during a low point in English cricket. In his first series in charge his team were miserably beaten at home by New Zealand, prompting a chorus of boos from England supporters. However, Hussain in typical charismatic fashion, led his country into a freakish streak of winning form thereafter.
Series victories over the West Indies at home and then famous Test series wins away in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka meant England climbed up to third position in the newly launched ICC Test Championship table. Hussain’s intuitive, lively and thoughtful approach to captaincy certainly benefited the England cause. He went onto lead his country for 45 matches until 2003, with only Atherton and Vaughan captaining England on more occasions.
“I never expected to captain my country to be honest. I thought Alec Stewart (the previous skipper) was harshly done by as he was a very good captain. We’d beaten South Africa under him and it just came to me,” he said.
“I enjoyed every moment of it, it was a great thrill to do the job. We had some success but we weren’t the best side in the world when I took over. Though, we did improve and became a side that was difficult to beat. Vaughan then took that on and made us into a side that won things and we won that 2005 Ashes series so the team did progress. It was great fun being England captain.”
Probably Hussain’s finest moment with the bat came during the 1997 Ashes in England, where Australia went on to win the six-match series 3-2. Hussain, who played in 23 Ashes duels overall but never won the famous urn, struck a career-high 207 in England’s first Test nine-wicket win at Edgbaston.
“Yes it was a great moment. For one week I felt like Sachin Tendulker or Brian Lara to be honest! It was a great way to do it with Graham Thorpe, one of my good mates, at the other end as well. He played beautifully, we beat Australia and went 1-0 up and we thought there was our chance but they unfortunately rolled us over at Lord’s.
“It was a great week at Edgbaston and it is a fantastic place to play Test cricket. It was a great atmosphere there and the best cricketing week of my life,” says Hussain who played 96 Test matches for England.
After finishing his fantastic playing career, Hussain made the move into the Sky Sports commentary box and he says that he is privileged to be able to work in broadcasting.
“Yeah it’s a great job. I work with two of my childhood heroes, David Gower and Sir Ian Botham, I’ve played England Schools with Michael Atherton since the age of 11 so I have known him for 32 years, David Lloyd was a fantastic coach to play under and I work with one of the games bowling greats, Michael Holding. I’m living the dream really, talking about the game of cricket is a lot easier than playing the game of cricket.
“You were with us in there all day and as you can see we still have that dressing room banter and atmosphere. We take it seriously but we realise we’re very lucky in what we do and they’re be a lot of cricketers out there who would give their right arm when they finish to do the job that we do. We enjoy it.”
With thanks to Nasser and to Paul King, Executive Producer of Cricket for Sky Sports for letting Stuart spend the day with the commentary team.