Back in 2008, Rob Archer wrote about Nasser Hussain, the man who put the pride back into English cricket.
Published in 2008
From Churchill to Oskar Schindler I like flawed heroes. I like people who stick to their guns and succeed despite their faults, or even because of them. But the flaws must be the right ones, and of any cricketer who ever played for England, Nasser Hussain’s flaws were the right ones. In fact, they are what make him my cricketing icon.
Nasser Hussain was the greatest England captain of all time; the real architect of 2005, and responsible for dragging England out of the depths of a series loss to New Zealand which left the team bottom of the world rankings. Until Nasser, TV newsreaders used to joke about the England cricket team. I spent my teenage life hating jokes about our cricketers. But until Nasser came along, they were right: England were a laughing stock.
Why did we become so bad? It wasn’t usually a lack of talent, or even effort. No, it was because somewhere along the way we lost our pride. Our flaws were all the wrong ones. We were embarrassed to be ruthless. Sure, we would succeed occasionally as a team, but we never imposed ourselves on others consistently.
Nasser Hussain gave us our pride back, and this was what turned England around. His lack of subservience, lack of shame in his country, and lack of embarrassment at wanting to win, changed us all. I didn’t realise it at the time, but when he led England to a 4-1 series loss in Australia, that was the high water mark of my support for England. Quite simply, because Nasser cared, I mean really cared, it allowed me to care even more. Nasser was one of us.
And not one of us. His background is important. A son of an Indian immigrant, he was an angry young man. Growing up I remember hearing about him throwing bats around and getting into fights. When he came into the England team I remember people doubting his ‘temperament’, and when he became captain the crowd booed him off after losing to New Zealand. But from that moment onwards, he dragged English cricket upwards with sheer force of personality. He moulded a motley team of individuals into a fighting unit. A team with his signature on it. Abrasive, difficult individuals now played for the team and for Nasser; the England fan on the field.
Nasser’s flaws were different to previous generations of cricketer. He was anti-establishment, angry, proud but above all unapologetic. For English cricket fans growing up in the 1980s there is none of the embarrassment of Empire that characterised the well-meaning but maddening toffs who used to run the game. Heroes like May and Dexter were great I am sure, but they were never one of us.
Ian Botham is one of us, but his flaws are also of the wrong type. Botham is of course the greatest hero in English cricket; anti-establishment (like Hussain), absurdly talented (unlike Hussain), and with a script that couldn’t be written. But Botham likes getting hammered with his mates, he likes hi-jinx before and after the game, he has his own little posse, many of whom still stick together on Sky Sports. And that’s great. I love Botham in the same way any boy who lived through 1981 does. But Beefy doesn’t get that sport has moved on; that to succeed now you need total dedication.
I once saw an England cricketer down two bottles of beer simultaneously in under three seconds during a recent World Cup campaign. I bet you Botham would have approved. I did too, at the time. But all I see now are the early signs of demise. There is something in Botham’s approach that is typically, mercurially English. He is embarrassed to be consistently excellent, concerned that to make the most of his gifts will be seen as boring or weak or imperialist. Success must come through erratic brilliance, not the sheer effort, determination and professionalism one might see in, say, a Roger Federer.
Nasser changed all that. He was so determined that when his leg-spin bowling deserted him as a teenager he turned himself into a batsman instead. He was arrogant and wanted success for himself. “That’s how it’s been all my career. I’ve never been a technically brilliant player. I’ve had to work hard for everything.”
And it was this he demanded from his team. He demanded that his players respond. When someone wasted the new ball, he moved to mid off and told him. He looked pissed off. He told it like it was. He told Steve Waugh that it was easy to talk about aggressive cricket with Warne and McGrath in your side.
On his debut, Nasser Hussain played with someone who featured in the Headingley ’81 Test.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) May 5, 2020
And that’s exactly what we wanted. Those of us who want England to be winners are sick of jolly nice chaps doing their bit, or hi-jinx with airplanes or pedalos. We want cricketers dedicated to the cause.
Finally, when the big Zimbabwe scandal broke, Nasser confirmed himself as the most courageous and clearest thinker in the modern game. Isolated, hung out to dry by a weak government, wet ECB and immoral ICC, Nasser stood alone, protected his team and did his best to do what was right. As ever, Nasser’s searing honesty and intellect meant that he didn’t shirk the issue. His stance summed up all that is best about being English, and 96 per cent of the letters to the Times that week supported him.
On the final day of the Oval Test match in 2005, I took Nasser’s autobiography along and managed to get my old friend Sarah Botham to drag Nasser over to the boundary. I told him there and then that he’d put the pride back into English cricket. I’ll always be glad that I did.
That day, a Pietersen-inspired England reclaimed the Ashes. But somewhere in the ground was the man who made it possible. Nasser Hussain had made winning acceptable, and in the process taught us to be proud of being English again.
Published in 2008