Nasser, Essex cricketer

Nasser Hussain talks to Pat Parker about his fiery temper, a fear of failure and his fame as one of the best England captain's ever.

FORMER Essex and England captain Nasser Hussain OBE is sitting in the elegant surroundings of New Hall School in Chelmsford, where he has been appointed cricket coach. It’s the first time the 42 year old has done any formal coaching since resigning from county and national cricket in 2004, having had an illustrious but often turbulent career which began at the age of eight, playing for the Essex under-11s. ‘I never had the temperament to be a county or England coach and sit there calmly,’ he smiles. ‘I can be a lot calmer with kids than I can be with 25 year olds who keep being caught at long-off!’

Instead, he has become a cricket commentator for Sky, which he enjoys hugely. ‘I’m very happy working with two of my childhood heroes, Ian Botham and David Gower, as well as mates like Michael Atherton. It’s like being back in the dressing room – not like a proper job at all.’He was lured to New Hall by the school’s head of cricket, Gareth James, himself a former Essex player who used to practise at the Ilford Cricket Club run by Nasser’s father, Joe. ‘He used to come up every weekend and ask for my autograph, even though he had it 500 times,’ laughs Nasser.

‘Now he’s my boss here. It’s funny how things turn round.’Nasser has high hopes of developing the sport at New Hall, which has only admitted boys at secondary level in recent years. ‘We’re right at the beginning and we have the chance to build both boy and girl teams,’ Nasser enthuses. ‘Already after a couple of months, we’ve seen a lot of progress. It’s fantastic to see how keen they are and how much they listen. And the school has excellent facilities. It’s very exciting.’Nasser lives just outside Chelmsford near the attractive village of Little Baddow with his wife Karen, a teacher, and three children, Jacob, nine, Joel, seven, and four-year-old Layla. He has lived in Essex since moving to Ilford with his family from India at the age of seven, and is happy here.

‘I’ve sampled all sides of Essex,’ he tells me. ‘I grew up in Ilford and loved its multi-cultural aspect. But I craved the countryside, so we moved out to Hutton, then Little Leighs and now Little Baddow. It’s a great spot. It’s easy-peasy to get to London and we get great weather. At Essex, we always used to moan we never got any rain here. Old Trafford would be rained off all the time, but we’d always be playing in Chelmsford. We never got a chance to put our feet up.’

Nasser was born in Madras to an Indian, cricket-mad father Jawad (Joe), and an English mother, Patricia, who converted to Islam, changing her name to Shireen. The family were wealthy, with servants, but Nasser’s parents wanted their children to have an English upbringing, so gave it all up to move to Ilford when Nasser was seven. Although he treasures his Indian heritage, Nasser immediately felt at home in England and has felt 100% English ever since.

‘I ended up with so many idiosyncracies. I’d have to sit in the same spot in the dressing room, change in exactly the same place, wear my lucky shirt. If it works for you once, you just try to bottle it and use it every time’

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His father, a former professional cricketer, took over the Ilford Cricket School and encouraged his three sons to play cricket from an early age. As Nasser began to show a precocious talent for leg-spin bowling, he soon focussed all his energies and expectations on his youngest son. ‘Fundamentally, cricket was what we did – it wasn’t something I chose to do,’ Nasser explains. ‘My dad gave me so much and I owe him everything. But it was a fine line – I could easily have rebelled. He was tough with me and it worked, but it does give you a bit of a fear of failure and it did throughout my career. Every time I got out, it was like the end of the world.’

Never did he come closer to rebelling and quitting cricket than at the age of 15 when, following a growth spurt, he suddenly lost his ability to bowl. Nasser was baffled and his father, distraught and angry. ‘The wheels had come off my cricket. The art of leg-spin is a bit of a mystery. When you lose it, it’s very hard to get back because you don’t know how you did it in the first place.’

Suddenly, from being an England hopeful, he was struggling to keep his place in the Essex under-16s. It was the then Essex captain Keith Fletcher who saved him, suggesting he reinvent himself as a batsman instead.It worked – although batting never came as naturally to him as bowling. It also brought different psychological pressures. A bowler has time to compensate for errors. A batsman makes the slightest mistake and he’s out. ‘You have to be physically tough to bowl,’ says Nasser, ‘but you have to be mentally tough to bat.’

Joe managed to get all his three boys into the prestigious Forest School in Snaresbrook. Nasser went on to read natural sciences at Durham University, where he met his future wife Karen during his first week. But it was in cricket that Nasser would forge a career. He made his first-team debut for Essex in 1988 and remembers his early years at the club with great affection. ‘I played for Essex from the age of eight until I was 34,’ he says.

‘It was the only county I was ever going to play for. I was very happy I played in that first era, when Essex were at the top and there were so many good characters in the side – the John Levers, Brian Hardies, plus the superstars of Graham Gooch, Keith Fletcher, Alan Border, Derek Pringle and Neil Foster. They played it hard on and off the field – they were good guys and I loved it.’

It was Gooch, by now England captain, who first suggested he should play for England in 1990. His Test debut in the Caribbean that year proved to be the first game England had won against the West Indies in 16 years. Unfortunately, Nasser broke his wrist playing tennis in between matches – an injury which contributed to his being left out of the side until 1993.

His fiery temperament resulted in him being disciplined twice by Essex in the early years of his career; it may also have delayed his return to the England side. It wasn’t until 1996 that he gained a regular place in the team. But he silenced any doubters with a magnificent 207 in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston in 1997 – a feat which he still cites as the highlight of his career.

‘I think it was the only time I’ve ever been ‘in the zone’, to use that ridiculous phrase. I didn’t hear the crowd or anything. Everything seemed to click. I’ve never played that well before or after, whatever I tried to do. For two days I was batting like Brian Lara.’

All too often, though, Nasser’s illustrious cricketing career has been beset by nerves, worries and obsessions. He would spend sleepless hours before a game fiddling with his bat. ‘I’d be in my room the night before with the grip off, putting tape round it, sanding it. If I broke my bat, it would be the end of the world and I’d have to get a new one in exactly the same shape. I ended up with so many idiosyncracies. I’d have to sit in the same spot in the dressing room, change in exactly the same place, wear my lucky shirt. If it works for you once, you just try to bottle it and use it every time. Fiddling with my bat was a way of coping with the pressure – focussing on that rather than having to think about facing Shane Warne’s bowling the next day.’

Failure often produced dressing-room tantrums. ‘I have a temper – simple as that,’ he says. ‘If I got out, I’d kick my cricket case or throw my bat. I was a fiery character. It was important to me and at times I couldn’t control my emotions.’

‘Dad was tough with me and it worked, but it does give you a bit of a fear of failure, and it did throughout my career.  Every time I got out, it was like the end of the world’

But the tantrums and temper were only a product of his absolute desire to excel – and gain his father’s approval. In 1999, the England selectors finally overcame any worries they had about Nasser’s temperament and appointed him captain. The ECB clearly hoped Nasser would be able to infect a demoralised team with some of his fire and passion.‘When I took over, we were the worst side in the world,’ he remembers. ‘They needed kicking into shape. We were under-achieving, and it wasn’t as if we didn’t have the talent.’

He set about creating a combative, motivated and cohesive team, working closely with coach Duncan Fletcher to introduce central contracts, which meant players played primarily for England rather than their county. It produced consistency in selection and reassured players that they would be looked after and weren’t going to be dropped after a couple of duff games.

He proved to be one of the great England captains, leading England to four successive Test victories, against Zimbabwe, the West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Many believe he was the best England captain since Mike Brearley. However, the pressure of captaincy took its toll, primarily on his batting, and he went through a painful eight-month spell of hardly scoring any runs. Nerves often got the better of him before a match, leaving him unable to sleep, eat or even breathe properly.

The dilemma of whether England should play in Zimbabwe during the 2003 World Cup put Nasser under still greater strain. Nasser was convinced the team should not play on moral grounds, but the authorities did not accept this as a valid reason. In the end, the team pulled out for security reasons – there had been death threats against the team – but Nasser felt let down by both the ECB and the ICC, who were putting intense pressure on the team to play.

Under pressureThe team was docked points as a penalty, but what grieves Nasser most about that World Cup is that England then threw away their next match against Australia, ‘we had Australia 110 for eight, chasing 190’. England failed to qualify for the next round, and Nasser still berates himself for tactical errors during the game.

Immediately after the World Cup, and suffering criticism in the press, he passed the one-day captaincy to Michael Vaughan, and later the Test captaincy also. ‘I just felt the side had shifted from one that needed to be shouted at to one that needed to go out and express itself under Vaughan,’ he says.

He continued to play on for Essex and England for a few months, before finally retiring after scoring a match-winning 103 runs against New Zealand at Lords in May, 2004. ‘I had decided to resign the night before,’ he says. For once, the pressure was off, and he started to enjoy himself.

‘There was no tomorrow, so there was no point worrying about it. It was slightly selfish. I should maybe have seen out the series. But there’s only one thing in your career you are in control of, and that’s when you decide to hang up your boots.’

He hasn’t played a match since and doesn’t miss professional cricket one jot. ‘I just didn’t want to play without that burning passion and desire I had when I started.’

Now he feels nothing but gratitude to his father, who sacrificed so much for him and pushed him so hard. But he will not put similar pressures on his own children. ‘I want to give them a taste of everything and not be blinkered about what they will do. But if they do show a talent, I will go out of my way to give them the chance to improve. I just want them to be the best they can be.’

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