Offside, 31 July

Nasser Hussain is seen as an outdated autocrat - but he put some steel back into English cricket.

Duleep Allirajah

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In the wake of his shock resignation as England cricket captain, the newspapers have been brimming with warm tributes to Nasser Hussain.

What bare-faced hypocrisy! Ever since England’s disastrous Ashes tour and World Cup campaign, hardly anyone has had a good word to say about Hussain. Now, as he departs, everyone is scattering flowers at his feet.

In an emotional press conference Hussain explained that, after four years captaining the national team, he felt ‘tired and stale’ and that he ‘wasn’t quite on the boil’. But there was more to his departure than simple leadership fatigue.

The timing of his resignation, after England had salvaged a draw against South Africa in the first Test, came as a surprise to many. ‘For sheer shock value, I can’t think of anything to match Nasser Hussain’s departure since Harold Wilson walked out of Downing Street for no obvious reason 27 years ago’, hyperbolised Matthew Engel in the Guardian (the 9/11 hijackers might be peeved to have been overlooked) (1). But it is evident that watching Michael Vaughan lead England’s one-day team to victory in the triangular series against South Africa and Zimbabwe was a decisive factor.

In the end Hussain fell on his sword, not because of his Test record, which compares favourably to most post-war England captains, but because he realised that his leadership style had become increasingly out of step with the therapeutic times we live in (2). ‘My style of captaincy has been about aggression and I believe you have to give them a kick up the backside now and then’, he said. ‘After seeing a young side enjoy themselves so much and have a different style of captain, it was very difficult on my first day back to be something different…it had moved on a bit.’

Hussain’s leadership style is frequently described as ‘autocratic’ by cricket journalists. Writing in The Times Rob Hughes wondered if England’s youngsters, who had performed so well under Michael Vaughan, ‘might shrivel if Hussain reapplies his more intolerant, demanding and intense brand of leading men’ (3).

By contrast, the epithets applied to Vaughan’s managerial style would make a yoga teacher proud. He is depicted as ‘laid back’, ‘inclusive’, ‘easy going’ and ‘democratic’. ‘He has relaxed the team and allowed talents to blossom’, writes Hughes. Whereas Hussain was prone to passionate Fergie-style dressing room eruptions, Vaughan consults all his players and goes in for group huddles. ‘We need eleven captains out there, not just one’ he said after being handed the one-day captaincy.

At the tender age of 20, Vaughan was sent by his Yorkshire county team on a management course where he appears to have been influenced by the touchy-feely leadership-in-denial management theories that were becoming the vogue at the time. ‘The course taught me a lot and explained to me that management is not about telling people what to do – it’s about far more than that’, he said in a recent interview (4). As Vaughan sees it, the key to good captaincy is ‘understanding all the people in the team – treating them as they need to be treated – making them feel good about themselves and confident’.

Understanding players is all well and good, but there are times when a captain has to tell people what to do; when he has to berate players for not pulling their weight; and when he has to overrule his team-mates. It’s easier to motivate a group of young players who are self-confident and hungry, but dealing with stroppy, demoralised, or complacent senior players and superstar egos requires a firmer hand. It remains to be seen whether Vaughan has what it takes to be tough when the need arises.

One wonders if Vaughan’s inclusive style would have worked had he taken charge four years ago when England were the laughing stock of world cricket. Nasser Hussain’s abiding achievement, as Simon Barnes argues in The Times, was to break ‘the national cricketing culture of defeatism’ (5).

And he didn’t turn things around by being everyone’s friend. He did it by demanding total commitment from his players and refusing to tolerate failure. As Barnes puts it, ‘He wanted people to dedicate their entire being to winning cricket matches’ (6). It’s a crime that a captain who has instilled a steely self-belief and desire to win in the English cricket team should now be widely regarded as an outmoded autocrat.

(1) A graceful resignation that befits his achievements, Guardian, 29 July 2003

(2) Leading post-war captains, Guardian, 29 July 2003

(3) Laid-back Vaughan vindicated, The Times, 13 July 2003

(4) Captaincy growing on young pretender, The Times, 24 July 2003

(5) ‘After the sweat, the tears as Hussain calls it a day’, The Times, 29 July 2003

(6) The rage within that lifted a nation, The Times, 29 July 2003

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