Shortly after England had won their first Ashes series for 16 years and the country was still in the grip of Freddie-mania, Nasser Hussain was the guest of honour and main speaker at the annual meeting of the Anglo-India Society. Born in India and subsequent captain of England having emigrated aged six, he was the perfect man for the job.
“Good evening everyone, you may remember me,” he said, “I was captain of England when we were still crap.”
He is a good man, Nasser. A bit temperamental as a player, perhaps, but scratch the surface and you’ll find very little except decency. But as captain of England there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to win and he was never afraid of trying a bit of gamesmanship. Or even a lot of gamesmanship.
There were only two or three South Africans in what turned out to be his final pre-Test media conference in 2003. He didn’t know it would his last one, but he must have been aware that the writing was on the wall. It was his infamous “Whatsisname” briefing.
Even though I was standing in the room and watching his face, I’m still not sure how much the reference to Graeme Smith was a snub and how much it was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. It’s tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest he forgot his opposite number’s name. But that would be to suggest he was an appallingly under-prepared captain, which he wasn’t. No, there was most definitely a very large element of ‘put down’.
Smith’s response, famously, was to score a national record 277 and rub Hussain’s nose for so long in the dirt that he finally faced up to the truth – his heart was no longer in Test cricket. A week later Michael Vaughan’s reign began and Smith gave him a dose of the same medicine at Lord’s by scoring 259.
On the morning of the second Test last week Vaughan, too, was involved in a ‘Whatsisname’ scandal when he opted to include Australian Darren Pattinson in his starting XI. He has since distanced himself from the selection with such vigour one might assume the poor bloke was a leper.
Selection convenor Geoff Miller said the final choice had been Vaughan’s while coach Peter Moores denied having any say in the matter on match day morning. Vaughan, however, said after the Test that the selection of a man he’d never seen bowl before – and nobody else in the team had met before – had been ‘very disruptive’.
One of the established swing bowlers overlooked at Headingley was Matthew Hoggard, England’s fifth highest wicket-taker. It is the genial Yorkshireman’s benefit year so he has been even happier than usual to offer the media a quote and soundbite.
“I think Michael wanted a swing bowler on the first morning at Headingley and he had to choose from the squad the selectors had given him. It was either a ‘bang-it-in’ type bowler or a swing bowler and the captain chose…whatsisname,” Hoggard said before attempting to recover. “It doesn’t matter who he is, it was a simple choice between a swing bowler and a bang-it-in bowler.
So, five years later, Whatsisname has returned to visit the England-South Africa series. Poor old Pattinson. The soon-to-be 30-year-old, who has lived in Australia since he was six, is not to blame for the fuss he has created but, boy, do England look in a mess.
The real problems concern Stuart Broad (can’t take wickets), Ryan Sidebottom (injured), Tim Ambrose (out of form) and Flintoff (can’t bat in the top six), but it is the selection of Pattinson which has created the diversion and drawn the ire of the fans and media. And nobody can blow up a sporting controversy quite like the English.
It is time for South Africa to draw their heads down and concentrate harder than ever. By the time the fuss has disappeared, Smith’s team could have become the first in four post-isolation tours to win here.
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