Nasser Hussain

'As captain you need people to want to play for you'

The former England captain talks about leadership, the captaincy styles of Strauss and Dhoni, and more

Interview by Sharda Ugra  |  

To the outside world, Nasser Hussain's significance in English cricket outweighs all his contemporaries - both as a prickly, unyielding, constant competitor and a forceful leader of men who captained England at a time of both tumult and progress. As much as Hussain gives credit to Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower for the team's recent ascent, the back story begins in the Hussain era, like Australia's did with Allan Border or India's with Sourav Ganguly. During India's tour of England, Hussain, now an insightful media analyst and crusader for Test cricket, spoke to ESPNcricinfo at length about the rise of England, the ticklish demands of that side's captaincy, why he is who he is, and where the world game needs to go.

"I know I couldn't have done what Vaughan did in 2005, and I know I couldn't do what Strauss is doing now with this team" © Getty Images

The redefinition of England began, it can be said, in your time as captain. How much of personal pride do you feel in England's rise to Test No. 1?
See, I'd have been disappointed if anything I'd done had been put down to 12 years before or whatever. What this team are doing now is down to Strauss and Flower. They were No. 6 in the world, being 50 all out against the West Indies, in turmoil again, and they have come in and put things right so quickly, it's unbelievable.

If you think about it, there is only one way, up, and I was fortunate that it was me that came in when [we were] at rock bottom and we could move our way up from there. I take great pride in watching England and the way we have progressed over the last decade because I go back to the comment that was made when I met [Duncan] Fletcher in a room at Lord's. He looked at me and said, "Why are you the worst side in the world? You have all these counties, all these facilities, all the money, all the players, a good team, a very good team, and we can't be... we're not the best side, but we can't be the worst."

So I look now - sell-out crowds, England No. 1, winning, and it's almost like, "Yeah, we've put things right now, we're playing like an England cricket team should." Look at the passion for the game in this country - every Test match is sold out, and we are now playing for them as they expect us, and we should do.

Is there actually a single template for teams to be successful? One particular method? You said that the Australian way was almost preached...
Well, there is a template. Good bowlers and good cricketers, and that is it. And that's what I meant about Australia and preaching. They used to preach a little bit, and I used to turn around and say, "Well hold on, [you've got] Warne, McGrath, Waugh, Waugh, Lee, whoever... Taylor, all that lot."

What I would like, and what I would hope this England side do - and they seem to be doing it at the moment - is, you worry about what you are doing and don't tell the rest of the world how to do things, because what now applies to England may not apply to India or to South Africa or to New Zealand. What we have is a lot of money coming in from Sky or whatever, we have the fortunate or unfortunate thing that we are picking up quite a few players from South Africa, a coach from Zimbabwe… I don't think you should ever preach.

The template is having the ingredients first, having a very strong captain and coach, and having 'em ready, having mentally strong cricketers. In this series I would say England have been mentally stronger than India - ready for the fight. Whereas I see a lot of Indians sort of say, I've played Twenty20, I've played 50 overs, but this is just a little bit harder for me, five days of this. I haven't done that for a while, so I'm not going to do it.

Finally I would say, having them ready, that's been the biggest difference on this tour. How many times on this tour - first ball, Jimmy Anderson, voom, got Abhinav Mukund. First ball, voom, got Virender Sehwag. RP Singh comes in, not ready, nightmare. You have got to be peaking at the right time.

Speaking of mental toughness, do you think it's one of those things that either you have or don't, or can it actually be built?
A lot of it is nature, what you're born with. It's what [Kevin] Pietersen has, it's the arrogance, the bravado, the ego. In 2005 the difference between [Ian] Bell and Pietersen was that Pietersen had a big sign up: "I'm Kevin Pietersen, please everyone look at me." Whereas Ian Bell back then had a sign up that said, "I'm Ian Bell, please do not look at me, I'm a bit quiet and shy." And you can't have that as a cricketer.

So you are born with it and you can learn it with success. Now look at Ian Bell. He's still a lad that mum and dad will be very proud of, a quiet, shy lad. But he has that confidence and arrogance and presence now, and mental toughness. That, I think, is going to stay.

Most of it is born. Like [Darren] Gough had it and [Andy] Caddick didn't, for example. Gough wanted to know when we are playing, he wanted to know where every camera was on the ground, wanted to be on TV. Caddick didn't. I think you are born with it, and if you get a bit of success you can learn it. And that's probably what [MS] Dhoni has done a little bit. Dhoni is a star figure and it's rubbed off on other people over the last two or three years, that I want to be that figure.

How much does the rise of a team, like England now, have to do with planning and how much with the cyclical patterns that we see in sport?
Well, you can plan. Every business will tell you that you've got to have some kind of succession plan. It's amazing how Australia, with that bowling attack, suddenly fell off a cliff, really. We were told all the time how great Shane Warne was. Then you see [Michael] Beer and [Xavier] Doherty and whatever playing, and you say, wait, we've seen these lads in county cricket in England, this is not Shane Warne. You've got to make sure you are thinking about the future all the time.

That's what has disappointed me about India on this tour. They were sinking in the present. World Cup, World No. 1, IPL, celebration. You've almost got to be ahead of the curve, all the time, and it takes a very clever man to do that.

That's going to be India's major issue. People write me down as someone who is hugely anti-IPL. I've seen IPL and I know what it means to the Indian public - they love it, British Indians love it. It's a good tournament, but it will exhaust cricketers. It's going to be one of Fletcher's biggest challenges. That if India carry on with IPL, I believe it will hurt.

There's no doubting it helped their one-day game. I think they wouldn't have been world champions if it wasn't for IPL. I think it has massively helped. Playing in your home country, players whacking the ball out of the ground, the handling of pressure, soaking it up - they've had it all in the IPL, and they go out and do it in the World Cup. But it is now going to hinder them - as we have seen here - in Test match cricket. Because you need young bowlers to be fit and raring to go, and the IPL is death for bowlers. It is noticeable that none of the England bowlers have played IPL.

What is England's next challenge? Is it to be dominant for a long period of time? Or is that not possible?
Let's not get giddy about England. Their main challenge is going to be the subcontinent. Going and winning in the subcontinent. England have got a lot of tours coming up in the subcontinent, in both forms of the game. So that's going to be their biggest challenge... finding that second spinner, whether it's going to be Monty [Panesar] or Samit Patel or someone like that; reverse-swing bowlers…

But they are all of the right age and all well looked after. The challenge is going to be to not do what they did in 2005, when they got giddy, and think they've climbed their Everest and that's it, we've done it. I don't think this lot will do that.

"People write me down as someone who is hugely anti-IPL. I've seen IPL and I know what it means to the Indian public - they love it, British Indians love it. It's a good tournament, but it will exhaust cricketers"

Also, England has not been No. 1 in sport, any sport, for a long time, so these are going to be star names. There's going to be a lot of attention in England, there's going to be a lot of lucrative deals. They're going to be more recognisable, so they need to not let it go to their head, lose their focus.

They are going to be enticed by IPL money. "Come and play, come and play." And they need to be looked after by the board to make sure that they don't go. So that they are ready for Test matches in the future. Because our season is always straight after that. So we don't need 'em coming straight from that exhausted. When you get a bowler, it's like gold dust. You do not just let him go. You don't just say, "Oh, fine, we can lose Anderson." Because before you know it, look at India, they're all gone. Look at Australia. Looking after this bowling unit and keeping them together is crucial for England at the moment.

Why has England's one-day cricket been so poor in all these years? Why haven't they been as competitive as they should be?
It is many things, but primarily, given the amount of cricket that is played, it is difficult to be at your best in all formats, and over the years England have prioritised Test match cricket, a little bit like India have of late prioritised one day-cricket. Very few teams can do both, like the Australians, for example, because the demands for both formats are very different.

The 50-over game is simple: see ball, hit ball. One-day cricket has been a lot more about individual brilliance, a lot more about raw talent. Not so much about technique etc. You look at the [Lasith] Malingas and the [Tillakaratne] Dilshans, Sehwag and these sort of guys - it's not about technique, it's very much about genuine raw ability and flair.

And historically England have produced good, solid technical batsmen, but you wouldn't say they have produced massive hitters of the ball or people who can be innovative with the bat, or have weird actions with the ball, spin it both ways or reverse-swing it. We've been a little bit too English, if you like, a little bit too orthodox. I think what wins you one-day games is a little bit of the unorthodox, and some individual brilliance. We've always lacked that, and Test match cricket is a little more of a team game.

As we've seen in the Test series, England had much more of a team, against the individuals who were India with great records and great players. That's Test match cricket. In one-day cricket it's probably a bit of the other way around - an individual can just turn a game on its head.

We're starting to produce those cricketers, albeit with a bit of foreign imports, but it's still an English side. Like [Jade] Dernbach with the ball - he's got unusual variations with the slower ball and he's unorthodox.

In that way Australia's dominance has been remarkable because it encompassed two formats consistently over a decade. Does this mean that kind of dominance will not happen again?
It will happen, but it won't happen every time, every team. The West Indies side of the 1980s and 1990s and the Australian side of the 1990s and the 2000s dominated both types of the game. It doesn't mean - as India are finding out now - that just because you are a great side, as India have been, you can be a great side in all forms of the game unless [the players] grow up together. It's becoming a bit late now for India, because, for example, soon it will be broken up. There are some tired bodies in there.

Whereas the Australian side grew up together - the Waughs, Warne, Ponting. It took a long time to build. It might come again. There is potential in this England side, but they have won nothing yet in one-day cricket, rather than the World T20.

England need to learn to win in one-day cricket - they need a good World Cup, just so that the kids in England look at it and say, "All right, we can play one-day cricket." I think it's going to be very important, the next World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, for England. It is very difficult [to build dominance] but what this England side have now, and that Australian side had, was strength and depth.

If Warne was injured, a [Stuart] MacGill would come in, if Mark Waugh was injured, Stewie Law was waiting, or Greg Blewett or whoever. Michael Bevan would come into their one-day side when [Michael] Slater was out of it. That is a seriously good squad in both forms of the game. What you do need is strength and depth if you are going to be great in all forms of the game.

Do you think the ODI series is going to be tightly fought? Or is there far too little room for the Indians to turn the result around?
I think the one-day series is more about the future. Look what happened when England went on the Ashes before the last, without Vaughan, without Trescothick, without a few other cricketers. They got blown away 5-0. I don't care how good a side you are, if you lose the likes of Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Gautam Gambhir and the rest, it is going to be a massive blow.

The ODI series is going to be close, but more than the result, India should be interested in what they find out from the series. They are world champions, no one can take that away from them. If they lose 5-0 to England, they will still be world champions. What they need to do is to start to look to the future.

They need someone to come through with the ball to replace Zaheer, they need Ashwin to bowl well and see if he is a replacement for Harbhajan. I think it's much more about which of these young lads will put their hands up. Rohit Sharma, I'm a big fan of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli... In English conditions, it will move around in day-night games in September, and Fletcher will be watching closely and the selectors will be watching closely. Now is a great time to show what you can do.

Would you say South Africa are now England's biggest threat for the No. 1 spot?
They are, away from the subcontinent. If you had all of the Pakistan team available, and all fit, and none of the politics and none of the going around in circles with captains and all that, with their bowling attack, they would be a threat, but unfortunately that's not the case.

But South Africa are a threat, [though] they rely heavily on [Morne] Morkel and [Dale] Steyn. Imran Tahir is a very useful addition to them. But Jacques [Kallis] is not young, [Mark] Boucher is not young. I don't know who is going to keep wicket, whether AB [de Villiers] will take over. They are a good side, but I still fancy England.


What drove you to believe that you could make a difference as England captain? You've always said you were a nervous cricketer. Captaincy is not a job for the nervous.
I think what drove me was that I always wanted to push myself, really, so I enjoyed captaincy. I enjoyed thinking about the game, even when I wasn't captain, wondering about different tactical changes and technical changes. I also felt we were underachieving. [That] there must be something you can always do to try and improve the side, improve the team's performance. I was very, very interested in improving the England team.

"There are certain characters in the team that, when they speak, people will listen. In my team it was Darren Gough" © Getty Images

Captaincy was also something that challenged me. For too long I thought about my own game and worried about my own game. I needed something else in my career - to just start thinking about other people in the team. And in a way that would help me within my own game, really, not to be so self-centred and so introspective. It [captaincy] just helped a little bit, for a little while anyway, until the whole captaincy burden comes on top of you...

Obviously your place is much more secure as captain, so you're never that worried about being left out, and that always helps. It helped me understand a few other people as well. It helped me understand the likes of Andrew Caddick, who also had a large fear of failure. We're worriers. So me being like that [too] helped me get a broader understanding of a variety of different people.

I always believed that captaincy is not having one rule that fits everyone or one way that fits everyone. You couldn't get two more different human beings than Gough and Caddick. Or Stewart and Atherton used to open the batting, and you couldn't get two more different human beings than those two.

It helped me understanding that people were full of frailties and worries, people weren't all like Graham Gooch. I remember saying to Graham, "How do you cure nerves and waiting to bat?" And he said, "I don't really get nervous." So maybe someone like that didn't quite understand someone who did get nervous and someone who did worry and fret.

Good captains, then, like coaches, don't really need to be great players?
I don't think you do. I think you need to be secure in the side. When I got the captaincy job, Keith Fletcher rang me and said, "Well done, and the first thing you have to do is to make sure you keep getting runs. That's going to be the most important thing for you because it's always much easier when you are doing well. You feel more comfortable in the team and you feel more comfortable telling people what to do when you're doing it yourself."

I don't think you have to be the best player. One of the greatest captains England ever had was Mike Brearley, and he certainly wasn't the best player in that team. You need to have other skills. Sometimes the best players don't understand failure and don't understand fear of failure, and some people that can't do the things that they can do. Sometimes the great cricketers, like Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff and people like this, don't make as good captains because they are, to a degree, geniuses, a little bit. Ask them to dissect [their game] a little bit, they might not be able to. So I do believe it's a just lot of different skills involved in being a captain to being a player so it doesn't necessarily go hand in hand.

What is the key quality a good captain needs to have - one or several?
He needs to have a presence about him, definitely, and probably the most important thing is that people want to play for you. I played under Michael Atherton and I thought that was his greatest skill. His greatest asset was that I wanted to play for Michael Atherton, because he always put the team first. I think the team sees straight through you if, when you are winning, you take all the credit and when you're losing you blame the team. I think how you handle yourself in and around the team, so that the team wants to play for you, is hugely important. I think when you lose that trust with the team, then I think you are fighting a losing battle.

How does a captain build loyalty? Did it come naturally to you?
No, you just have to be clever, really. I believe that there are certain characters in the team that, when they speak, people will listen. It's not necessarily your best player, it is your most charismatic player. In my team it was Darren Gough. At that time he was the pin-up boy, he was the star performer…

When we were going through bad times, that's when the team really start to chat properly. They won't tell you things in team meetings or hotel rooms, but when they get away from it that's when the niggly things come out. Why are we practising tomorrow? Why are we training tomorrow? Why is Hussain doing this, why is Fletcher doing that? Why is he still in charge? He hasn't got any runs for two months. That's when you need all your lieutenants out there, who will just quash that immediately. And I had two or three good ones in Atherton and Stewart and Gough, and [Graham] Thorpe was another one, who, if any of that chat happened, immediately said, "Hang on, we're all going in the right direction."

I realised very quickly that I needed Gough on board. When Gough spoke people listened. Gough, on my first tour as captain to South Africa, had a bit of a weight issue. The one thing that really upset Goughie was anyone mentioning his weight issue, and I was asked that at a press conference. Immediately I said, "No, Darren Gough doesn't have a problem, and he's the first name down on my team sheet and he always will be." Because, (a) that was the truth, and (b) I wanted Darren to know I had given him full backing in the media, so that I would have my main character, my main charismatic figure, on board.

Has captaincy become simpler than what it used to be when you started playing, given the massive support staffs etc, or has it become more complicated now?
It's become simpler for some. Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart would love to have had what they have now - central contracts and bowlers being rested and ready like they are now. They had people like Angus Fraser etc turning up exhausted [on Test match morning], Gough himself turning up exhausted. But while they would like what we have now, they would also be the first to say that captains of different eras have different problems. It's not got easier from me to Strauss. I was given quite a lot by Lord MacLaurin. Obviously we brought in central contracts etc.

"I'm pigeonholed as this nasty, aggressive captain who was always ordering, shouting. In fact, Duncan used to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes"

A captain is pretty much only as good as his side, mainly only as good as his bowling attack, really. A bowling attack can make you look like a fantastic captain. You only have to look at Mahendra here on this tour and look at Andrew Strauss. You are pretty much as good as your bowling attack. They are the key ingredients. The rest is about two, five, maybe 10% captaincy.

Do captains have a limited lifespan? You said you quit captaincy because you were tired. What did you get tired of?
Tired of worrying every day about English cricket. Every day you literally wake up and you're doing meetings and thinking and planning and looking back and looking forwards, worried about your own game, worried about the England team game.

It's different from country to country and different from era to era. For me, there was a lot of winning, but there was a lot of losing as well, so dealing with the media and everything, there were a lot of good days and a hell of a lot of bad days. So for me a four-five year time span was enough. [You finally say], "You know, I've got a young family, I don't have to be grumpy all my life. I need to move on a little bit." Whereas if you are Steve Waugh or now Andrew Strauss, and you're winning all the time, the number of bad days are a lot less. And hence your lifespan is that little bit longer really.

So I think it depends on what sort of side you are captaining, how successful that side is, what age it comes to you, and how much you want to do it. [Captaincy is] the sort of thing that you can't just do in half measures, it's the sort of thing you have to either do full-on or not at all. So once you get that gut feeling that you are just doing it because of the job, or you're doing things to save your job, rather than actually doing your job, then you have to move on. And I felt that very quickly, it came to me like a bolt out of the blue, and I just knew it was time to move on.

Does a captain need to be detached from the job a bit, to be able to do it for a long time, to be successful? One of Dhoni's strengths, for example, over these four years is said to be his detachment.
Again it has to come from character, and Dhoni looks to be a completely different character from me, for example. Different captains and leaders for different teams and situations, I think. India needed Sourav [Ganguly] to... it was always "nice India" when you played against them, all very friendly, good morning, all that sort of stuff. And Sourav made them into quite a nasty, aggressive bunch, a tough bunch. And it was what India needed then. I reckon with all the chaos that goes on with Indian cricket, and when it was on its way up, and the expectation and hype, what was needed after that was someone to calm it all down. You know what Indian cricket and media [are like] - it's so hyperbolic, so high, so low. They need someone like Dhoni to be there, flatlining all the way though - a calm character. So I believe in different captains for different times. Same with myself.

England were underperforming. We were the worst side in the world 12 years ago, booed here [at The Oval]. They needed someone to come in and kick 'em up the backside: this is not good enough, we are better than this; we are not the best side in the world, but we are certainly not the worst. So I had to show them what playing for England was all about, what it meant, but after me, when I had my time, they needed [Michael] Vaughan to come in.

When everyone was hiding behind their sofas in 2005 and saying, "Please, please, come on, let's beat Australia for the first time for a long time, win the Ashes", he stayed very calm, cool and collected. And after the Pietersen and Moores debacles, they have needed someone with a mature head, like Strauss, to come and take over. So it's different leaders for different times. I don't think, for example, Vaughan [would have been suited for] when I took over. Vaughan would have been a little bit too calm and nice and cool for that situation.

A little bit, what you've got to be careful of is that you get pigeonholed a little bit. I'm pigeonholed as this nasty, aggressive captain who was always ordering, shouting. In fact, Duncan used to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes. If anyone needed reprimanding or having a quiet word, Duncan used to do a lot of that.

Good cop, bad cop?
Yeah, good cop, bad cop. It's just like with kids. Being in charge of a team is just like having kids. You say one thing to Gough at one end and then completely different at the other end. Fletcher plays the bad cop, I play the good cop, and then we swap around.

But the captain-coach relationship is absolutely vital. You both must be singing from the same hymn sheet. Even if you disagree - when I'm having a cup of tea with Fletcher, we're having a meeting, I say, "No, Dunc, you're wrong," but 10 minutes later, when we go in the meeting, players will be [thinking] "Why is Nass going against Dunc?" So in a meeting you're together, [facing] the press you're together, even though behind the scenes you're disagreeing on a few things.

How do you rate captains you've seen? Who are the ones you've admired, both from the time you played and now?
I think these two [Strauss and Dhoni] are very good - for different reasons, sometimes not just on what you see of them but sometimes you've just to look at the record and say, "There must be something good about this guy, it can't be coincidence." I don't see something specific about Dhoni where I say, "Jeez, he's Mike Brearley", tactical brain or whatever, but the stats are there, the CV is there.

And if someone like Sachin Tendulkar says "He is the best captain I have played under", you put that into the equation as well, I think. I admire Dhoni for what he's done. Listen, I was there in Mumbai [World Cup final] when he did that, when he put himself up the order. I mean, the pressure… I was feeling nervous watching, and it wasn't my side playing. Dhoni pushes himself up the order, he's there at the end, he whacks it for six, picks a stump up and walks off. Now that is as cool as you like. He's got something about him. He's got a presence about him, and he's a leader of men.

Strauss is different. He's a leader of men [too]. When he speaks, people listen. He's an ambassador for his country, he is very dignified in the way he talks. In the whole country, I reckon no one would look at Andrew Strauss and say, "What's this bloke on about?" They listen. He talks well, he makes good sense, he makes good decisions, and yet both of them, you wouldn't have them both them down as massive tactical geniuses.

I admired Stephen Fleming. I thought when he took on that Australian side with a relatively normal New Zealand side, he had great tactics, great ideas.

I learnt a lot from Brearley, reading Brearley's book. I enjoyed him as a captain, the way he handled Botham - magnificent, the way you can handle Botham like that. Still, to this day, when Brearley comes into the box, Beefy gets up and it's "Morning, Brears", and he shows him a lot of respect. Brears is a psychologist of leading, his man management of people was there.

"You only have to look at Mahendra here on this tour and look at Andrew Strauss. You are pretty much as good as your bowling attack" © AFP

The other thing as captain is that you can't have all the ingredients. You'll be good at certain things and not so good at other things. Just as long as you've ticked enough boxes and you've got more good things than bad, then you'll be all right.

How would you rate yourself as captain?
I always think it's for other people go say things like that, but I rate myself like I tried to rate myself as a player actually, so that when I end, I would say, "Well, that's the best I could do." That's what I did as a player and that's the same with my captaincy. I know I couldn't have done what Vaughan did in 2005, and I know I couldn't do what Strauss is doing now with this team.

Why would you say that?
Because of personality. I felt - a little bit like my batting - I was a man for crisis, because it took the fear of failure away. I hate [to be] like [Ravi] Bopara, going in now, going out at 300 for 4 or whatever. I liked it to be 20 for 4, almost like no one is expecting you to do well. You have got nothing to lose and then you show people you can do well.

And that was the same with [when] I took over. I got booed here [at The Oval]. Everyone was expecting England to just carry on and I would just be another captain. So it was almost a "like to prove people wrong" sort of situation, and I liked those situations.

And I'm one who thinks all the time. Think, think, think, think, and eventually there's only so many hours of brain time that you can use up before you say enough is enough. But I enjoyed the job. I absolutely… more than playing, my greatest moments and love of the game come from captaining England.

And the next day when you put on the TV and it's Michael Vaughan, England captain, it hurts. When the Barmy Army sang "Michael Vaughan's Barmy Army" from "Nasser Hussain's Barmy Army", it hurt. And again I'll quote Brearley. He said that what hurt him the most was the next day. When you are no longer England captain, you suddenly realise it's over, you are no longer England captain, and you appreciate what you had.

Hussain on working with Duncan Fletcher, being part-Asian and more: read read part two of the interview here

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo