O Captain, my Captain!

Observations on cricket

I remember, in my final year at university in 1989, being thrilled by the performance of a young student cricketer from Durham. He was called Nasser Hussain and, representing the Combined Universities, he scored a brilliant century against the professionals of Somerset. The leader of that student team was Michael Atherton, who even then was considered to be a future England captain. No one predicted the same of Hussain, though his talent was never in doubt. In the event, Atherton and Hussain were both selected to play for England soon after leaving university, but whereas Atherton thrived, Hussain struggled and was soon dropped, becoming lost for several years to the grinding anonymity of the county circuit.

There were whisperings about his attitude - his introspection and unpredictable mood swings. He clashed with team-mates and seemed at war with himself and the world around him. There was little to suggest, at this stage, that he would one day be England captain, or, indeed, that he would play for England again.

Although born in Madras, the son of an Indian father and English mother, Hussain is resolutely an Essex man. He went to school in Snaresbrook, lives near Chelmsford and has played for Essex since leaving Durham. He once urged young British Asians to support England at sport, rather than the countries of their ancestral origin, which for a time made him rather unpopular among the communities that had seen him as a model of progressive integration. I was present at a World Cup match between England and India at Edgbaston in 1999, during which Hussain was abused remorselessly by the Indian fans, most of whom had broad Midlands accents: "Nasser, Nasser Hussain/Everyone loves his name . . . in Pakistan," they sang, to the theme tune of Rupert the Bear.

Anyone who has captained a cricket side, even the lowliest village team, will understand that there is no lonelier or more demanding role in professional sport than that of England cricket captain. An uncompromising competitor, Hussain was a very good, sometimes even great captain: during his four and a half years in charge, he transformed English cricket both in attitude and accomplishment. He may have been an aggressive, unsmiling presence on the pitch, but he cared deeply about his team. At times, on tour, particularly in Sri Lanka in March 2001, the intensity of his commitment was so great that he found himself unable to sleep and spent many nights patrolling the corridors of his hotel. In the final Test of that series, he could scarcely walk because of a torn muscle, but he still inspired England to a memorable 2-1 series win.

What I liked most about him as captain, apart from his determination, was his honesty. Like King Lear, he blamed no-body but himself for the failings of his team. Even when events turned against him - as they did on last winter's injury-blighted Ashes tour of Australia, and when England refused to play a World Cup match in Zimbabwe - he never missed a press conference or evaded difficult questions. Now he has resigned, passing the baton to the younger, more relaxed Michael Vaughan, Hussain should be celebrated for his bravery and dedication, and for helping to remake English cricket, turning a shambolic national team into one worthy of respect and admiration.

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