Book Review

Playing with Fire - Nasser Hussain with Paul Newman

Stephen Fay

Hussain comes out a-blazing

Playing with Fire by Nasser Hussain with Paul Newman, published by Michael Joseph, 493pp, is available for £17.99 in hardback © Getty Images

Malcolm Speed says he doesn't read cricket books. Just as well because the disrespectful tone in Nasser Hussain's autobiography would make him even more cross than usual. "His attitude was always `Do what we tell you to do.' He felt he ran the game and it didn't matter what cricketers thought or wanted." Tim Lamb will not have the book on his Christmas list either. "A smooth operator whose manner I have always found unctuous and whom I neither liked nor enjoyed working with."

Hussain gets this off his chest in the first 22 pages of an extended narrative in which he never forfeits passion or indiscretion. This is not a coaching manual; there are no considered analyses of the strategies of his opponents, or of the state of the game. Reading this book is like sitting down with Nasser over a few rums in a cocktail bar - he's not fond of noisy, smelly pubs - and listening to an absorbing jumble of anecdote and self-analysis. What we have is a Hussain red in tooth and claw.

Old colleagues say that his memory is not always exact but professional cricketers are not dedicated diarists or notetakers, except for Ed Smith and Steve Waugh of course. Hussain's biggest single target is Nasser Hussain. The adjectives he directs at himself are: complex, contrary, restless, introvert, insular and abrasive.

And he knows where he gets it from: he says his father is "an extreme version of me in many ways". Joe Hussain diverted his own ambition into his youngest son. "I played because I seemed to be good at it and my Dad pushed me into doing it."

He was a promising leg-spin bowler who was not allowed to give up on cricket when he lost the knack: "I simply decided to become a batsman instead." He succeeded, scoring 5,764 Test runs at 37.19 but he was scarred by this early experience. "Those days of self-doubt ... was when the fear of failure really took hold of me. It has made me the cricketer I am, valuing each innings as if it was my last and selling my wicket dearly."

He was a difficult young man: "I said things out loud from the heart because of the emotion I was feeling. I placed such a high priority on winning Dad's approval that friends took a back seat." Many people thought Hussain was a pain in the neck but he did make friends: Graham Gooch at the start of his career (though not the end), Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe, Darren Gough, Mark Butcher and Duncan Fletcher.

There are no halfway houses. He does not mask his dislikes. He quotes Mike Gatting at a selectors' meeting asking: "What else does [Thorpe] bring to the party except runs?" He thought Brian Bolus "had a screw loose". Ian Botham, during a brief spell as an adviser in 1999, declared: "Stewart? He's lost it. His eyes have gone. It's too late. Get rid of him now." Alec Stewart had another four productive years for England. David Graveney? "He's influenced by too many people. I think he's too interested in protecting his own job." The only selectors he trusted were Duncan Fletcher and Geoff Miller. Incidentally, now he is permitted an opinion, he insists Murali chucks his doosra.

These observations are fascinating but Hussain should have no illusions. For him, an honest expression of opinion is an end in itself. For the victims, it is often an unbearable intrusion on their own image of themselves. They will not like it and he will find this hard to understand, just as Ed Smith did when a couple of Kent players failed to appreciate their mentions in his own much more discreet diary. Think of the feelings of Alan Lilley, cricket operations manager at Essex. Hussain says of him: "Here's a bloke who, over 10 years in the game, was known to everyone in the Essex team as `Cementhead'."

Judgement about Hussain eventually rests on his captaincy. He wanted to share the fire in his own belly with the whole England team and believed any failure of his undermined his captaincy. "I couldn't captain in a softly-softly way. I had to captain by anger. But how could I have a go at Gough or Caddick for not stopping a two on the boundary after I had been out for two noughts?" He is talking about a pair at The Oval in 2000. "That was the beginning of the end for me as England captain."

Fortunately, he lasted another two and a half seasons as skipper, and when he did resign - suffering from the symptoms of depression and from irritable bowel syndrome - his legacy to Michael Vaughan was a tougher England, less willing to concede defeat. Hussain's captaincy had not been a comfortable ride, but it makes a great story.

Rating 4.5/5

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