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 Friday, 3 January, 2003, 16:20 GMT
Nasser Hussain: Captain Courageous

The England cricket captain's assertion that the government should decide whether his team play in Zimbabwe is characteristic of a man noted for speaking his mind.
While declarations Down Under have been a luxury only Australia could afford on the pitch, Nasser Hussain felt compelled to make this one: "Going to Zimbabwe is a moral issue and it is not up to cricketers... to make the decision."

His view has fuelled a debate which threatens to become ever more bewildering.

Born: Madras, 28 March, 1968
Married: Karen, sons Jacob and Joel
Played for Essex Under-11 Schools when he was eight
Young Cricketer of the Year, 1989
Highest Test score: 207 v Australia, 1997
Sports Minister Richard Caborn has said the matter is one for the International Cricket Council, which, like the England and Wales Cricket Board, is committed to playing in Harare "as long as it is safe".

And while Hussain says politicians should now decide, he adopted a seemingly different stance little more than a year ago, when England nearly abandoned their tour of India as the hosts proposed fielding an ineligible player.

Then he insisted "everyone should adhere to what the governing body (the ICC) says... including me as England captain".

Adding to the confusion, Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, have let it be known they're against the trip and the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, David Graveney, has said if he was asked, he wouldn't go to Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe
Tony Blair wants a boycott of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe
But Graveney's also the chairman of selectors picking the World Cup squad, and he has angered the ICC chief executive, Malcolm Speed, who says of him: "This is the man who managed a rebel tour of South Africa."

Just as it did in the dark days of apartheid, cricket has become embroiled in the controversy of whether sporting sanctions would help or harm the embattled victims of an odious African regime.

And again, the argument rages within the country's borders, as e-mails to BBC's Talk Sport testify. "Please let England play. Political bickering is for governments," says Hungry Zimbabwean.

Question of courage?

At the same time, one of his countrymen, Amos Ncube, pleads: "If the Western world has an ounce of decency left, they will not play in our country."

Nasser Hussain celebrating
Despite Australia, Hussain has delivered English victories
Many of the contributors maintain the decision IS one for Nasser Hussain and the rest of the England squad, challenging the captain to have the guts to say "No".

Lacking courage is an unfamiliar accusation for Hussain. But then his job has never been easy. "It's one thing being friendly old Nasser Hussain," he says, "and another, England captain, trying to get the best out of my team in a really tough series."

On that occasion, he was talking about India, who won the series against England at the end of 2001. But days later, the general improvement in England's cricketing fortunes under Hussain's leadership was recognised by the award of an OBE.

Hailed as the most astute strategist and the most successful captain since Mike Brearley 20 years earlier, there was also unstinting praise for his ability, together with team coach Duncan Fletcher, to create an impressive team spirit.

Mike Brearley
Mike Brearley has praised Hussain's captainship
"I think the players identify with me", he says. "Respect is the most important thing."

Hussain's pride at leading England has been evident, even though he was born in Madras, where his father played for the city's cricket club.

The family moved to Ilford when he was six and while his two older brothers shared his ability, they didn't match his determination.

Nasser graduated from Essex Schools to the county team and after acquiring a degree in natural sciences from Durham University along the way, he was picked for England in 1990.

Nine years later, having proved himself an accomplished batsman and fielder, he was made captain, an appointment that might have come earlier, but for doubts about his rebellious nature.

Nasser Hussain clenched fist
He is fiercely patriotic about England
Now the temperamental outbursts are usually confined to anger at himself: "When I get out, it's not in my nature to be calm," he says.

It's another aspect of his passion for playing for England, a patriotism he wishes was shared by British-born Asian cricket fans.

"For others, maybe it isn't so clear where their loyalties lie, but for me the position is easy - everything I am is English."

The humiliating nature of England's defeat in Australia means Hussain's leadership qualities have been called into question.

'Fraternise? No way'

Of course, it soon seemed obvious that he'd made a mistake in electing to field after winning the toss in the first Test in Brisbane.

Australian fans
Australian fans have berated England's performance
But had he chosen to bat, would it have made any difference against a side often described as awesome?

And he scorns the suggestion that England's prospects might benefit from having an informal post-match chat with the Aussies.

"That is absolute drivel," says Hussain. "You go into their dressing-room, have a beer and suddenly you are Don Bradman? The learning is done in the nets and by actually watching how these people play in the middle."

Nasser Hussain's courage, dedication and enthusiasm are undimmed by Ashes adversity. "Through it all I've enjoyed the battle against the Australian bowling," he says, remarkably.

He has indicated that if his country needs him to lead England beyond that contentious World Cup, he'll heed the call.

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30 Dec 02 | Politics
18 Jan 02 | England
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