Rob Smyth assesses the legacy of Nasser Hussain.



An emotional Nasser Hussain faces the media for the final time as captain

So, four years on, Nasser Hussain left England pretty much where he found them - in Birmingham, as an upper mid-table side capable of competing with anyone except Australia. He started with a bang - a spectacular two-and-a-half-day victory over New Zealand after England had been 45 for 7 - and ended with a whimper in a dreary final session today.

But that doesn't tell half the story. Within two months of that New Zealand win England were unofficially the worst team in the world; Hussain himself was roundly booed by the crowd at The Oval. At that stage the extent of England's ambition was a first-innings lead - they didn't have one for two years - but bit by bit, kicking and screaming, he dragged them up the ICC Test Championship table.

The zenith came early: four series wins in a row in 2000 and 2001. Zimbabwe and a declining West Indies were there for the taking, but to win twice in the subcontinent in one winter was outrageous, an achievement beyond even Australia. England hadn't played a Test there for eight years, and hadn't won one for 16. March 17, 2001, when a woozy Graham Thorpe guided England to an unforgettable victory in Colombo, was the undisputed pinnacle.

It was in keeping with Hussain's reign that, while his team were sweeping all before them, he couldn't buy a run. When England won the Wisden Trophy for the first time in 31 years, on an emotional day at The Oval in 2000, Hussain's joy was tempered by the fact that he had just bagged a pair; that his highest Test score all summer was 25. He looked exhausted.



One of Hussain's finest hours as captain: he holds the Wisden Trophy aloft at The Oval in 2000 after England had beaten West Indies for the first time in 31 years

He learned to juggle the two eventually, and in the last couple of years Hussain's calling card was the tone-setting performance in the first innings of a series: 64 against Pakistan in 2001, 85 in India and a tremendous 106 against New Zealand the following winter, 57 and 155 against Sri Lanka and India last summer, and 51 in Australia. Each time the captain setting the agenda, infusing his side with momentum.

England had momentum two summers ago alright. Four series wins in a row for the first time since the late-1970s - it would have been five but for a dodgy run and some uncalled no-balls - meant that everything was building to a crescendo ahead of the Ashes. But Hussain went into the series without two of his main conductors: Michael Vaughan - amazing to think that it didn't seem that big a loss then - and Graham Thorpe. Then Hussain's poppadom fingers let him down in the first Test. By the time he was back at the helm, the Ashes were gone, the dream blown mercilessly apart.

It was the end of an era. England's four-in-a-row side never played together again, but Hussain ushered in a new era as seamlessly as could be expected. With the core of that side - Atherton, Thorpe, Stewart, White, Gough, Caddick - unavailable for varying lengths of time, Hussain became England's father figure, unflinchingly protecting his own. His Dad's Army had metamorphosed into The Young Ones.

He won a moral victory in India, and his ruthless employment of leg-theory tactics to Sachin Tendulkar showed that he didn't give a stuff what anyone thought. This was his strength and his weakness. He gained untold respect in New Zealand for the dignity with which he handled Ben Hollioake's death, led the rout of a Sri Lankan side that came to England on the back of nine Test wins in a row, and just about kept his hand on the controls as a staggering number of injuries beset England against India.

But the job was beginning to tire Hussain, and the winter from hell broke even his will. The Zimbabwe imbroglio overshadowed the World Cup, yet the real business was Hussain's last crack at the Ashes - something that ended the moment he put Australia in after winning the toss at Brisbane. Ashes failure will be his biggest regret: Hussain was a confirmed Aussiephile; his desperation to beat them and join them was etched all over his face.

The desire to earn respect from the Aussies was one of the defining features of his reign. The others? Desperate pleas for raw pace (answered eventually) and mystery spin (more elusive than ever); spectacular off days - of the 15 defeats under Hussain, nine were by an innings; and interesting press conferences - a rarity among recent England captains. Brains, too: Hussain's predilection to rant and rave sometimes obscured how good he could be at fashioning a silk purse in the field, never more so than when England, with a second-string attack, thrashed India in Indian conditions at Lord's last summer.

Hussain's overall record - P45 W17 D13 L15 - suggests a pretty dull, run-of-the-mill reign. Not a bit of it. English cricket has a harder nose and a keener mind than it did four years ago. It has lost its best captain since Brearley.