West Indies in England 2004 August 5, 2004

Attrition is not so passé

Andrew Miller on Nasser Hussain's legacy, and how Brian Lara could learn from it

Nasser Hussain: the captain England needed © Getty Images

If there's one thing that sports fans love more than an old hero, it's a new hero. Who needs David Beckham when you've got Wayne Rooney? How many Aussies still yearn for Ian Healy, now that Adam Gilchrist is wrecking all before him? And as for Nasser Hussain and his over-my-dead-body attitude, what was all that about? These days, with Michael Vaughan leading England to eight wins out of nine, or whatever the tally now reads, old-school attrition is becoming distinctly passé.

England's Test team, in case you haven't noticed, is on something of a roll at the moment, and the same scribes who pronounced Hussain's captaincy as "England's best since Brearley" have been forced into a hasty reassessment of his legacy. These days, he is generally described as "the captain that England needed at the time", which is a subtle relegation from his previous status. It can only be hoped that this doesn't have an adverse effect on his hitherto impressive second career as a commentator. Hussain has been a breath of fresh air since joining the Sky Sports team, largely because his idea of a balanced opinion does not require a chip on both shoulders.

What is indisputable, however, is that without Hussain's firm-yet-fair guidance, England could not possibly be reaping the dividends right now. When Vaughan took charge of his first Test, a year-and-a-week ago at Lord's, he told a rapt audience at his inaugural press conference that he wanted "ten captains" out there on the field with him. By tea on the third day's play, however, South Africa had secured themselves a first-innings lead of 509, and Vaughan was absolutely out on his tod. After Hussain's autocracy, this new democratic approach to the leadership appeared to be an open invitation to anarchy.

But one year on, and all of Vaughan's Christmases have come at once. All of a sudden, his team really does run itself, and of the 11 players who took the field at Edgbaston, not one could be considered a second-class citizen. This particular contrast with the West Indian camp (for there were several others) could hardly have been more striking.

Plenty has been said and written about Brian Lara's merits as a captain, and after conceding the Wisden Trophy within 11 days of the first ball of the series being bowled, there is sure to be plenty more speculation in the coming days. But let's be realistic: West Indies have no genuine alternative candidate for the leadership. Ramnaresh Sarwan was impressive as a stand-in on Sunday morning, when England lost seven quick wickets in their haste to set a target, but the last thing an ill-disciplined team currently needs is for one of the lads to take higher honours. At 35, Lara may not have many years left in him, but he has a vital final role to play in the regeneration of West Indian cricket.

Brian Lara: increasingly concerned about his personal legacy © Getty Images

Perhaps Hussain's greatest achievement as England captain was the manner in which he lowered the country's expectations while at the same time raising the team's competitiveness. It was a distinctly unglamorous remit, and it often resulted in some unashamedly negative cricket - from the leg theory he employed against Sachin Tendulkar in India, to that now-infamous decision to bowl first at Brisbane. But Hussain's fiercely protective attitude towards, especially, his pace bowlers, enabled the team to develop hidden depths that are only now becoming apparent.

Lara, by contrast, has been more inclined to give his charges short shrift than a comforting arm around the shoulder, and it is not as if he has been lumbered with a feckless batch of raw materials. In the Caribbean, Tino Best and Fidel Edwards had England's finest on the hop at all times, while Omari Banks and Dwayne Bravo represent the cream of a new crop, who - one suspects - would love nothing more than to earn the respect of the one legend in their midst. And yet, from his increasingly world-weary press conferences, it appears that Lara's only genuine concern is his personal legacy.

That legacy, however, can no longer be influenced by his batting alone. The 2004 West Indians are in the same situation as England were in 1999, the year that Hussain inherited a team at the bottom of the Test pile, and Lara is the only man capable of shrouding his side in a similarly protective mantle. From Allan Border's Australians to Kepler Wessels's South Africans, and even as far as the Bangladeshis under Dav Whatmore's guidance, all recent tales of regeneration have involved a period of dour introspection that can only be instigated by a man who commands absolute respect.

West Indies have a crop of players at their disposal who, with the right guidance, could yet become the new heroes that the region so desperately needs. But before that can happen, they need their old hero to embrace a new outlook. As Nasser himself might have put it, Lara needs to come to the party, if only to pull the plug on the disco.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.