Nasser Hussain retires
Quintessentially Australian ... almost, but not quite
Perhaps the most mesmerising Steve Waugh photograph in existence is a portrait Mark Ray snapped several summers ago. Everything's black and white, even that evergreen baggy cap. His eyes are three-quarters shut, crinkled and exasperated, glaring to the right of the camera. His lips look dry and chapped, his stubble three days old, maybe four.
By chance a fly is perched half an inch from his right nostril, closer even than Curtly Ambrose ever dared hover, casting the sneakiest of shadows. Everything about Waugh looks tight and taut and tough and pissed off. It's a bushman's face, a digger's face. It's the face of an accountant in the 'burbs with a mortgage, three kids, a rusty green shed and a mild pokies addiction. There was something quintessentially Australian about Australia's greatest modern captain.
If you swapped Waugh's face with Nasser Hussain's, then switched the kangaroo and emu with a crown and three lions, you suspect the photo would lose little of its potency. Like Waugh, Hussain wouldn't bother shaving or smiling or scrubbing up to look pretty. He'd just be. He wouldn't give that poxy photographer the satisfaction of looking back at his pretentious over-priced camera. And there's no way he'd let that fly win the day with its stupid smart-arsed mind games; no way he'd shake his head or raise his hand or fumble a can of Baygon in his flannels. There was something quintessentially Australian about England's greatest modern captain.
Hussain's retirement, effective immediately, has inspired more than the standard quota of super-soppy weasel words that accompany old cricketers when they fade away. "With the pressure he put on himself," wrote genial Vic Marks, "it is a marvel that he played for so long." A marvel? Strewth, the bloke was only 36.
And the following passage, believe it or not, flowed word for overboiled word from the laptop of Christopher Martin-Jenkins. "That is the sort of memory that anyone would want to leave: of a man who dug his country out of a hole ... In his finest hours, if it is not to imbue him with too much glory, there could be something Churchillian about Hussain's defiance." Trust the Poms to turn a mean bastard who hated losing and never gave his wicket up easily into some kind of statesman.
In Australia, there is no greater thing than to be a mean bastard who hated losing and never gave his wicket up easily. It's the ultimate accolade. So we liked Hussain. We reckoned he was one of us, a bit like Ian Botham years ago. He averaged more against our lot (38.56) than he did against all-comers (37.18). And, with all due modesty, there's not too many modern players you can say that about.
As a batsman he'd get whacked on the fingers by some huge ugly thug of a fast bowler, call for a couple of quick squirts from the magic spray, then carry on. As a captain he'd move square leg half a metre to the left, wait one ball, then hold the whole show up and move him back again, flapping his arms about like an Aussie Rules goal umpire. Not because he was indecisive, but because the pitch was flat and his bowlers were duds and, since he couldn't get the batsmen out, he'd have a go at annoying them out. It was nearly – so nearly – enough to earn our undying respect.
Swept up in the Hussain hoopla, The Guardian last week listed five defining Hussain moments. There was a gutsy 207, a brave 146 not out, a bold 109, a defiant 115, a courageous 116. They were five innings of a kind: proud and pugnacious, with the bowling fierce and the sledging crude and the media on his back and the world on his shoulders. Trouble is, we in Australia don't much remember him for any of that.
No, we remember Hussain for the opening Ashes confrontation of 2002-03. And not because he won the toss and bowled on a Gabba pitch likely to take longer than the Rolling Stones to break up, though that was numbskull enough, but because of his brain-dead defeatist explanation why. "I was hoping," he prattled in his newspaper diary, "to limit Australia to 300 for 5." He'd lost his nerve before his troops had even been kitted up. That creep Douglas Jardine, for whom winning was all and with whom Hussain had been compared endlessly in the preceding months, must have turned in his grave.
And now we can't think of Hussain without picturing him quitting as captain with three Tests to go against South Africa, or fleeing to the fancy-schmancy Ikea sofas of the Sky TV commentary box with two Tests still to be won against those pesky Kiwis. It's not that these actions were not courageous, for it takes a fair amount of guts to tell your team-mates – with whom you've shared misery and ecstasy in the simulated trench warfare that is Test cricket – to get stuffed, to say I'm going to do what suits me. But he could only have gotten away with it in England. Round these parts, every schoolkid soon learns, you get your baggy green, you keep it, you never let it down. Hussain took the cosy option and left his team and his mates in a right hole. Quintessentially unAustralian.
It is a point that didn't entirely escape the English press. "There is a body of opinion," Mike Selvey noted, "that believes his action to be mistimed. Suppose, it is argued, injuries were to leave England in the lurch, devoid of experienced back-up. This, though, misses the point, that he deserved the right to make his own decision."
Here we have the difference, neatly crystallised, between cricket's two oldest combatants. In England, there is a time and place for the individual. In Australia, what's best for the team goes. Always. No matter what. You don't mope about the dressing-room reading F Scott Fitzgerald books and you certainly don't let your team-mates down by pulling out of a crucial game, especially when you've just smashed an audacious matchwinning hundred, because you reckon it's good timing. Good timing? Good timing is what happens when the ball crunches into the bat and crashes into the fence. Full stop.
There is a lot to be said for the English way. It surely helps create more rounded individuals, happier ones too, with outside interests and friends of their own, who know of a life beyond nets and boarding passes and physios pinching your gut to test how fat you are and wasted afternoons spent standing round like a dork shooting breakfast-cereal ads.
The Australian way has one advantage, though: it means you're more likely to win. So long as Hussain was around, England never had a hope in hell of regaining the Ashes. Which is another reason, come to think of it, why we liked him.