11 November 2001

Nasser Hussain’s father takes pride in seeing two former pupils of his indoor school representing their country

At home in Madras, Joe Hussain was very keen on the tour. He was a great Fred Trueman fan. He waited by the nets and asked one of the bowlers: “Is Mr Trueman here?” The great Fred had declined this particular passage to India. “Who’s Mr Trueman?” the other bowler sneered.

That memory may seem another world, another lifetime away for the smokey-haired 61-year-old who now presides over the bat-on-ball echoes of the Ilford Cricket School tucked proudly, if a touch shabbily, round the back of Beehive Lane just off the A12. But Joe Hussain has reasons for that pride.

And not just because his son, Nasser, is having a net and Joe’s young hopefuls are queuing up to bowl at the England captain. “Cricket is so important in India,” he says. “Hockey used to be the number one sport but cricket has overtaken it by miles. Now it’s like a religion. But cricket fans are very knowledgeable and very welcoming. It’s like here,” he says, looking round the obviously mixed ethnic group on Thursday afternoon, “it brings people together.”

Cricket has been important to Joe. He scored a hundred for Madras University against Hyderabad before he came to England in 1960. Over here it helped him meet his wife, Shireen, at an Ilford game, and when the couple returned to India for 10 years, cricketing memories of Joe batting for Madras at the Chepauk Stadium were among the early inspirations for the young Nasser Hussain.

“I didn’t want to over-push the boys,” says Joe, whose daughter, Benazir, trained at the Royal Ballet and is now a principal ballerina in Perth, Australia. “But cricket has been something of a passport. When Nasser had already got a maths scholarship to Forest School, our elder boy, Mel, went and scored a hundred against their first XI and Mr Foxall, the headmaster, came up at tea and said: `We must find a way to get him here too’.”

All four siblings are now successes in their own field, but with cricket so ingrained in Hussain senior, it was with real angst that he faced the possible cancellation of a tour to his homeland following an England team captained by his son. “It was something quite unbelievable for me,” says Joe with a smile of the purest, most wistful paternal pleasure playing around his lips. “To have my son captain England in India. It couldn’t get any better.”

Then came September 11 and all that has followed. Joe, like everyone else, furrows his brow at the memory.

“Of course the world has changed,” he says, “and no one should ever forget what happened. But life must go on. All my friends are ringing up from India saying, `Are they coming? Please tell them how welcome they will be.’ I think we just have to go. I just hope that the security arrangements are not so tight that they can’t go out and see what a wonderful country India is.”

“Besides,” he adds as the conversation is momentarily silenced by a particularly loud report from Nasser’s bat as he takes the gun to the bowling machine in the net over to the right of us, “it will be such a challenge for the lads. To bowl against Tendulkar, to bat against Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in their own country is a terrific test. No one here can imagine how big Tendulkar is in India. Far bigger than Beckham or any sportsman is over here. He and the others aren’t just stars, they’re like gods.”

Discussion of such celestial beings is delaying attendance on younger earthlings. Tom Yallop and Ricky Royds have already played for South of England Under-14s, Varun Chopra has been to an England Under-15 training course at Old Trafford and a local paper cutting on the noticeboard pictures him receiving his award as Ilford young player of the year from Nasser himself.

All three live locally, all three can see the natural progression from this elderly three-net hall to the great cricket arenas of the globe, which has already been made by the likes of Graham Gooch, John Lever, Nasser Hussain and now young James Foster. “I took over here in 1990,” says Joe. “By then Nasser was already on his way and I promised myself I would produce another Test player. James Foster is just 21 and he’s going on the tour. I’m so proud of him.”

When Foster had that much publicised spat with Andy Flower in Zimbabwe a month ago, it was Joe who got on the phone to keep his spirits up. He would do just the same for any of the three, or indeed for the scores of boys and, more recently, girls who follow this ageing, Indian, chain-smoking Pied Piper to put cricket in their dreams. Cricket’s new money finds its way to many places infinitely less deserving than this old hall, where the outer wrapping is at so much variance to the gleaming spirit within.

On winter weekends the place is heaving, as indoor tournaments take their turn. For a while the kids were predominantly Asian, but Joe has noticed more white children coming to cricket as football’s intensity squeezes too much of the fun out of the game. But another crack from the far net reminds you that colour has nothing to do with it, and how proud we are to have England captained by an Englishman called Nasser Hussain.

So far Tom Yallop has been on tour to Taunton, Ricky Royds has been to Folkestone and Varun Chopra has done best with a school trip to Barbados. “It was great,” says Varun, already pushing six feet at just 14 and restlessly flicking the ball around his wrist as he readied himself to bowl. “I didn’t score a lot of runs but I got among the wickets and when our keeper was injured, I had to do that too,” he said.

In truth, the three kids are not hanging too heavily on Joe’s words this afternoon. They want the chance to bowl at their hero. One day they, too, will hope to tour India and other foreign parts. In cricket it was ever thus. Long may it remain.

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