Today we kick off a new series of articles by Billy Crawford. Over the next few weeks, while we wait to see when cricket can resume, Billy will be writing a series of pen portraits of the players who have defined each cricketing summer since since he first fell in love with the game back in 1999. The first one focuses on Nasser Hussain. Enjoy and stay safe. From Billy and James. 

English cricket was at its lowest ebb in the Summer of 1999. Not only had the side crashed out of their own World Cup before the official song was even released but defeat to New Zealand in the summer’s Test series meant England were unofficially ranked as the worst team in the world. In this moment of humiliation, one man strode onto the Oval balcony to face the cacophony of boos from the South London crowd. That man was Nasser Hussain and he was about to grab English cricket by the scruff of its neck and drag it away from the abyss.

Alec Stewart had lost his job as captain after the World Cup debacle and, as new skipper, Hussain was tasked with taking over a ship that, if not exactly sinking, had certainly taken on a great deal of water. Immediately he looked to put his own stamp on things. Perceived troublemakers under the previous regime, Andy Caddick and Phil Tufnell, were welcomed back to the fold.

The first Test of the summer at Edgbaston provided some early promise as nightwatchman Alex Tudor’s 99* not out and Andy Caddick’s 5 wickets led England to a stirring victory. It proved to be a false dawn , however, as old frailties re-emerged in demoralising defeats at Lords and The Oval.

Hussain’s tenure is, perhaps, not as fondly recalled as those of the men who followed him, and his record pails compared with those of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss. Perhaps this is due to his abysmal record against Australia but it may also be as a result of his confrontational and aggressive approach with players. Many of his former charges record being on the receiving end of one of the captain’s infamous rounds lashings. Some, such as Matthew Hoggard, recall him screaming in their faces over the smallest of issues.

This approach could be counterproductive much of the time, particularly with younger players who often found the lack of support challenging. Marcus Trescothick remembers Hussain not even speaking to him for the entirety of his debut Test in 2000. It certainly contrasts with Michael Vaughan’s arm round the shoulder approach to new arrivals.

The key difference with Nasser Hussain, however, is the team that he inherited. It was a team that had grown used to failure with players that seemed to have developed an almost fatalistic attitude to defeat. The battle scars of numerous thrashings at the hands of Australia and the West Indies were visible on many of them. It was a team that needed a man who would not accept failure, a man who would root out mediocrity and call out slack standards. A man who would force his team to stand face to face with their opponents. It was a team that needed Nasser Hussain.

The perfect example of the new captain’s attitude came at Lord’s in the summer of 2000 against the West Indies. Having already lost the first Test, England had been bowled out for 134 in their first innings to concede a 133 run deficit. Many England teams of the recent past would have folded but Hussain’s response typified his never say die attitude. “Right lads!” he told his group of players in the dressing room. “If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down our way! Lets pepper them”. Andy Caddick and Darren Gough proceeded to do exactly that, as the West Indies we’re bowled out for 54 in a hail of short balls before England completed a famous victory the following day.

The team went on to complete a 3-1 series victory and Nasser Hussain’s legacy as the first England captain to win the Wisden Trophy in 31 years was complete. His reaction as the final wicket was taken at The Oval was not one of joy or exultation but a simple dropping to his knees, hands on head, seemingly overcome by exhaustion. The intensity of the man seemed to overwhelm him. After all, although the pressure he put on other players was immense, it was nothing compared to the pressure that he put on himself.

In the early days, this high intensity approach was just what England needed to drive the team out of the wilderness years. The victory over the West Indies was followed by back-to-back series wins on the subcontinent as both Pakistan and Sri Lanka fell victim to this new feistier England team, an achievement never bettered since. Pakistan were memorably defeated in almost total darkness at Karachi in the sort of backs to the wall, against the odds victory that the captain would have derived great pride from.

As the years went by, though, the siege mentality that Hussain liked to create around his team started to take it’s toll. At times he seemed to be burdening his players with unnecessary pressure which stifled their natural joy in playing cricket. One wished that he could, just once in a while, take the hand break off and let his team express themselves but this was never his way.

His fierce competitiveness and desire to win could even be shown in his other interests. A lifelong Leeds United fan, he switched to supporting Arsenal in 2004 as he “did not want to take my kids to Championship football”.

Two heavy defeats at the hands of Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australians have coloured people’s views of Hussain’s team and were, more than anything, his undoing. His decision to bowl first at Brisbane in 2002-03 has gone down in infamy. Coming back from that series, England were beaten down and jaded. The Zimbabwe crisis during the 2003 World Cup also took its toll on the captain and his men. For days, the England players had been locked away in their hotel rooms, agonising over whether to play a match in Robert Mugabe’s country, from both a safety and a moral perspective. In the end, England were the only team that refused to go, a decision which ultimately cost them their place in the knock out stages .

As often happens when a captain has been in situ for a long time, players no longer seemed to be responding to Hussain’s voice. Michael Vaughan had taken seamlessly to the one day captaincy and the younger players, in particular, were responding to a more relaxed style of leadership. England’s Test captain felt he had lost his grip on the team and his powers were fading.

The first Test against South Africa that summer was particularly dismal. As Nasser Hussain sat in the dressing room during another rain break, as England tried to recover from Graeme Smith’s crushing innings of 277, he knew it was all over. That evening, after a flurry of phone calls to friends and family to gather advice, he made his decision. The team needed a new voice. The following morning he went and found Michael Vaughan and, according to the new captain’s autobiography, offered him the job as Vaughan was finishing off a bacon sandwich.

In such inauspicious circumstances, the baton of leadership was passed from one man to the other. Michael Vaughan would go on to scale far greater heights than his predecessor but he would do so standing on the foundations that the Essex man had built.

Despite his faults, English cricket owes a great debt of gratitude to Nasser Hussain. Without his hard work and perseverance doing what was, at times, a thankless task, the successes that followed may never have materialised.

Billy Crawford