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Nasser Hussain looks at the challenge ahead of his former coach, his own experience as a British Asian captaining England, and how to balance cricket's three formats
Interview by Sharda Ugra
September 7, 2011
Duncan Fletcher's first major series as the India coach has been disastrous. But one man knows what Fletcher is capable of. Nasser Hussain was the England captain during the first five tough years of Fletcher's tenure as their national coach. During India's tour of England, Hussain spoke to ESPNcricinfo about what Fletcher brought to the table, the difficulties he could face in India, the need to play less cricket, and about his own Asian roots
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Has your identity as a British Asian been a part of how your career turned out? What did it mean to you? Did you think of yourself as the man who broke the glass ceiling for cricketers of Asian origin in Britain?
I dunno if I broke the glass ceiling or anything like that. I know I'm very proud of doing it [becoming England captain]. I still remember practising in the outfield of the Chepauk stadium with my brothers. I know how much it meant to my dad that someone from that situation - where he bowled balls to me at the Madras Cricket Club - ended up captaining England. And that is a great story for me and my family, and I am very proud of that.
The only issue is that I've always considered myself English and British, but I do realise I've been a bit of a role model for British Asians. I think I've enjoyed the fact that I am of mixed race. It's a great combination: the fire and passion of Indians and their cricket is from my dad, but also the English schooling system and the English system as a whole gave me great opportunities.
I didn't really come up against any racism. In Essex, I played in a middle order with Nadeem Shahid and Saleem Malik, and you see Ravi Bopara there now. A lot of that Ilford British Asian community has always progressed well.
The most important thing I take from my dad is the realisation that what you do is very important. The game of cricket is very important. I used to hate it, and I still hate when people say, "Oh, it's just a game." See, what happens when you lose a Test match or whatever, it's more than a game. So the appreciation of the game and how important it is came from my dad, and I always took that everywhere. Even if I played a benefit game in Essex or a charity game, I would be upset if I was out for 5 or something like that. It is important if you put all this effort into it, the passion and everything that goes in. You might as well do it properly.
Did you not have to fight your British Asian identity when you were growing as a player? Or did it grow with the cricketer?
I never really fought it. The only time I had to fight it was when I was in India, very proud of being half-Indian or whatever you want to call me. The appreciation and the love of the Indian fans and a little bit of the curiosity of how this boy from Madras ended up going on to captain England. I had to keep reminding myself that I was the England captain and my main priority was to win games for England and not to try and win over the Indian fans and be nice to all of India.
So that is the only time you had to battle a little bit. You had to still realise what your main job is, not worry too much about the fairytale and the dream of going back to India with your dad and all these things. It was only on one tour , the time I took my dad back to Madras was the tour that I captained. There was a lot of love, and the Madras Cricket Club put on a great function for me and my dad. We were made honorary members. I was very proud of that and had to remind myself the next day that I was the England captain trying to beat India. You don't fight it, but you just realise that's your given job and you have to go out and do it.
In hindsight, what did Duncan Fletcher bring to the table for England?
Fletcher, first of all, was an outsider, which was very important to English cricket. English cricket was always driven by people in the game. They had played the game, they ran the game, they were involved in some way. Some were looking inward, some were just so busy trying to save their jobs, they weren't doing their jobs.
I think that's a sign of madness if you carrying on doing things just because you've done that before. So Dunc came in with new ideas. He'd been out of the game for a while. He brought in business ideas to the team, man-management ideas, structures. It wasn't just the captain and coach, there was a structure below the senior players. Younger players would sit and make decisions on everything: on what time we were going out, how many nets, how much we'd train, what we'd wear to High Commission functions, etc.
Selection was massive. He changed selection. Like, Stuart Broad at the beginning of this series had a poor three-six months. In the olden days, no way Broad would have played [the first Test against India]. In the olden days the media would be writing, Broad must be dropped, Broad must be dropped And he would be dropped because people were worried that if that's what the media is saying and you go against that… The media had a massive influence. It is you that puts your head above the parapet, not Broad. It would be you, as selector or chairman of selectors.
Fletcher said, "Forget all that. If I want to pick a player, I want to pick him as an investment, not for just one week, one Test match. I am picking him as an investment for the future. I want to know how good he's going to be in one year, two years' time." So he picked up people who had average records, like [Michael] Vaughan, [Marcus] Trescothick, [Steve ] Harmison and [Andrew] Flintoff. They weren't pulling up trees in county cricket or whatever. But he had a good eye for a player and an investment for the future. And because we had some success, and winning those tours in Sri Lanka, Pakistan - four series - it gave us time to get these lads bedded in.
|"The one thing Greg [Chappell] tried to do was to change the culture a little bit. To try to make a younger, fitter team. So how does Fletcher take on players and make really important decisions that will really annoy a lot of people in India?"|
Duncan's got great technical skills, and I can name a dozen occasions where he's looked at a player and got him spot-on. I won't name names but there's was a player on our first tour of South Africa, and he looked at him at a net and said, "Ah, Allan Donald will get this lad out a lot on this tour. He won't get many runs." And he didn't get many runs.
He picked on Mohammad Yousuf in Cape Town, and he said to Jimmy Anderson: full outswinging delivery early on. Bowled him, cleaned him up. Duncan has a great eye for technical weaknesses and strengths of players. He's insightful, he's new, he's fresh-thinking, or he was back then.
I do wish him well with the Indian team. I do think they have got their right man, because he has to go on that path again with India now.
Would you say the two international coaching situations he's had to go into are actually similar - England and India? People wouldn't think so.
The situations are similar and dissimilar: England back then were rock bottom. India are not, they are still a good side. They have just had two bad months. But they are papering over the cracks if they don't think that in Test cricket they have a long fight here to get back to No. 1.
The biggest difference is [that] in English cricket, he was the main man. If he said he was going to do something, we did it. Now if he gets back to India, it is how much they will let him do things off his own back. That will be the decision they will have to make and he will have to make: whether he takes on people in India or not.
By that do you mean he's one of those coaches who believe that in some cases he must actually be more powerful than the captain? Was that a part of your equation then?
No. Duncan was still old school, where the captain was the main man. It's a very English way - the captain is always the main man. But because I had such great respect for him and what I saw him achieve with us, I would... bow down's an exaggeration, but if he wanted something, or he had a vision or he had a player, I would say, "Dunc, you've got the last five right, so you are going get this one right too", and I'd go with it. He'd get it right occasionally and he's probably made mistakes on this trip. But in my time he got more right than wrong. I would be strong about certain things, but other things I would say, "I'll go with you."
But [his case is] even more different with Dhoni. Dhoni has to be the main man. Like I say, his record is so good, so exceptional, that he has got to be the main man in leading India forward, with Fletcher by his side.
Have you wondered how it's going to work out for Fletcher, even other than his equation with the BCCI?
I have wondered... The one decent thing he had with us is that he had done three to four years of county cricket with Glamorgan. So the players I mentioned, he knew the ingredients. He'd seen Trescothick get a 150 against Kallis bowling very quick, so he made a mark... not that he ever thought he'd be England coach, but he made a mark. When he was England coach, he immediately turned to me and said, "You know, one lad Trescothick." I hadn't even heard of Trescothick. I'd seen him a bit. And I said, "Oh, okay, all right."
So that's going to be his issue - how much of the young players of India has he seen? And he will need to see. I do wonder how it will go for him. I wish him well, because I think he can do a good job if he is given the tools.
What about personality-wise? Will he adjust to working in the Indian cricket environment?
Well, that's again going to be difficult for him. He rubbed people up the wrong way in England, and he still does. And he is a very stubborn man, doesn't bow down to the press, makes a lot of enemies, doesn't suffer fools gladly. Very stubborn. He still won't speak to certain people who have messed him up over the years, and he comes across - even though I know him as completely different - to the English media as quite a sort of sourpuss, and he's not. He's got a good sense of humour, he's a good guy.
The main thing was that he took on the counties. A lot of what is happening here [in the England v India series] is down to Duncan. Before Duncan, Angus Fraser and Darren Gough were bowling on a Monday and Tuesday before a Test match - a little bit like India. We were having knackered bowlers, who had either not played a lot or played too much, and Dunc said, "No, Thursday of a Test match, they must be fit."
In our counties, it was like the England football team - Arsenal, Liverpool are bigger than England. That's how it was. We used to be in the England dressing room and players were still putting on Ceefax [to check] how's Essex going, how's Middlesex? And I was like, I'm not interested here, this is England, we're playing Australia. So Dunc used to ring up Somerset and say, "Sorry, Andrew Caddick is not playing next week." And they are trying to win the Championship, so it was a massive thing.
There was a Northants chairman who was asked which would he prefer: Northants winning the Championship or England winning the Ashes, and he said Northants winning the Championship. That was the mentality Dunc had to take on, and it made him very unpopular with counties. But he took them on and he rested the players. And look now, it's all moved on and that's just normal now. He changed our culture a little bit.
The point is, can he do that in India? You know, with all respect, and I don't want to get into the Greg Chappell-Ganguly thing, the one thing Greg tried to do was to change the culture a little bit. To try to make a younger, fitter team. But how do you? The players are bigger than the coach in India, so how does he [Fletcher] take on players and make really important decisions that will really annoy a lot of people in India? But he will view it as the right thing to do.
Was the clout of the counties the biggest hurdle England had to overcome to get to where they are today?
Definitely. Because every decision we made had to be voted on by the ECB cricket committee, which consisted of the counties. It was like turkeys voting for Christmas; it was a difficult thing to get by. They were almost voting to put themselves secondary to the England team. That was the major mindset change. We had the players, who wanted to change, but we needed the counties and the ECB to buy into the fact that the main focus must be the England cricket team and everything must be secondary to that. It took a long time, a lot of arguments, but eventually we got there.
Because of the success of the team?
Yes, and I think the chairman of the board, Lord MacLaurin, bought into that. He was a very clever man. He came in from business. He came in from Vodafone, Tesco. He said, "Okay, I'll give you that, but in return I want something: I want you to behave like businessmen, want you to dress smartly. I'll give you single rooms. I want you be clean-shaven. If I'm paying you extra and looking after you, I want you to be ambassadors for your country and put in performances as well."
It was a bit of a give-take situation. Fletcher being stubborn helped. If he hadn't been so stubborn, he [may] have buckled and said, "No, right, let's not do this." And we would have gone back. Fletcher could have thought, "I'm in my job, I've lost a couple of series, I'll look after myself", but he didn't. He never tried to look after himself. He kept plodding on, and other people behind the scenes - Geoff Miller, one of the selectors then, he's now national selector, was very helpful in driving all of that. You need everyone buying into it, including people within the team.
We also had good ex-captains like Atherton and Stewart, who didn't come with any kind of needle and bitterness and say, "In our time we didn't..." Like, why didn't we have it this easy? It could have stirred those two, but it didn't. And [there were] also good guys within the team. Every team needs good guys. Not your best players, I'm talking about players who aren't legendary, but guys like [Paul] Collingwood and [Ashley] Giles and [Craig] White, people who would lead the way in England going in the right direction.
What's the best way for the world game to handle three formats? Greater financial benefits for playing Test cricket? Does Twenty20, with its mushrooming domestic leagues, need to be trimmed down?
I enjoy international Twenty20, and I've heard a few - some very good names - say you shouldn't have international T20. I was in the World T20 in South Africa for the India-Pakistan final, I was at Lord's for the Sri Lanka-Pakistan final, and I was at the Australia-England final in Barbados. These were great occasions, great sport. The other day at Old Trafford was a sell-out, and it was a very good game. I think international T20 works. I just believe some of the domestic tournaments, I just think they've just overdone it.
|"People go to a Test match to see bowlers bowl at 95 miles an hour because they know they know they can never bowl a 95-miler. If they are just going to go and see medium-pacers they see in club cricket, what's the fuss all about?"|
I mentioned the IPL, but even in England there are far too many games for our domestic players. They are doing far too much travelling and too much cricket. They will be exhausted as well. Everyone is trying to get the money in. Counties are struggling, the IPL is a lot of big bucks. What I would say to any administrator is, "Yes, you do have to balance the books, yes, as administrators you are also looking at how much money you are bringing in, but also look at the future of the game. You are in charge of it." I think Bradman said all players and administrators are in charge of this game.
Then you look at the standard and quality of bowling we are now left with. Is it a coincidence or is it just a fact that the amount of cricket being played is eventually taking its toll on bowlers? Michael Holding would look after his body - he still looks after his body. He wouldn't bowl too much when he played county cricket, he was saving it up for the West Indies.
There is a real lack of fast bowling. Bowling has diminished in the last five years, and I think the volume of cricket has taken its toll on bowling. Bowlers really put bums on seats. People want to see Ambrose and Walsh in, McGrath, Warne, Donald, Pollock, Akhtar, Gul, Kumble, Srinath, these sort of guys, Murali. People would love to see Brett Lee running in at Virender Sehwag, or Shoaib Akhtar at Sachin Tendulkar. People want to see things they can't do themselves. People go to a Test match to see bowlers bowl at 95 miles an hour, because they know they know they can never bowl a 95-miler. They can't face anyone at 95 miles an hour. If they are just going to go and see medium-pacers they see in club cricket, they know that was good, but what's the fuss all about?
I do believe as administrators they are going to have to say enough is enough. I do believe we can sell every day of the calendar, especially in India. People will soon say we need quality instead of quantity.
You're saying it's not about how you split up cricket's financial pie but containing the number of limited-over games and keeping the bowlers fresh is what should matter most?
Just less cricket, generally. I don't know how many days a year we are playing now. Look at India's schedule: World Cup, the IPL, they had a tour of the West Indies, a tour of England, they have a home series against West Indies, ODIs against England, then away to Australia. They haven't got that rest yet.
Of course, I too get disappointed if I put on the telly and there's no cricket on, but you have to learn to wait. It's like a treat. You have to learn to wait to watch Sachin bat. He's not there every night, you wait to watch him bat.
If it's just there all night, every night, I think you are overkilling it. I do believe you can cut down one-day cricket. You don't need seven ODIs and a couple of T20s. Have three one-dayers and three T20s or something like that. T20 will sell itself, you'll have sell-out crowds everywhere. All these ODIs will be sold out too, but that doesn't mean you have to do it just because it's bringing in money.
Hussain on leadership, the rise of England, the captaincy styles of Strauss and Dhoni, and more in part one of the interview here
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