The Return of a Real Hero; Yesterday His Team Arrived Back in Britain in near Disgrace. but We Should Applaud the Truth Behind England's Decision Not to Play in Zimbabwe

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Byline: PETER OBORNE

NASSER HUSSAIN and his shattered and beleaguered English cricket team arrived back from South Africa yesterday close to disgrace.

By all conventional measures they have had a catastrophic winter: trounced by Australia followed by outright failure in the Cricket World Cup. It was no surprise when Hussain resigned as captain of the national one-day team.

But it is worth pausing for a moment before we condemn Hussain to the dustbin of cricket history and classify him alongside all the failures in that most demanding and thankless of jobs.

For there is a strong case that Hussain is not one of the worst, but actually one of the finest captains England has ever had. For he is the only recent cricket captain of England to have grasped that the job brings not only sporting challenges, but can also make the most intense moral demands.

Many cricketers fail to cope.

Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting let themselves down emphatically when they led their disgraceful "rebel tours" to pre-liberation South Africa, which gave succour to apartheid in its dying years.

They pretended, and this was their shameful error, that cricket could be isolated from the society of which it formed part.

So, last week, did the Australian skipper Ricky Ponting, when he took his team into Zimbabwe. Before the game, I am reliably told, urgent messages were sent asking that the Australians should emulate the example of Zimbabwe players Andy Flower and Henry Olonga and wear black armbands. It would have cost the Aussies nothing to agree, but they ignored the requests.

ONLY the England players had the courage and the humanity to engage with the ghastly humanitarian catastrophe bordering on genocide that is swamping Zimbabwe today. What made the stand made by Nasser Hussain and his players all the more exemplary was that they were so alone. They were not supported by any other team, let alone by the wretched English Cricket Board.

They have received no credit for this because, at the time the English cricket team's concalls-At the time the press was ripe with speculation whether England would go to Zimbabwe or not, and the final decision was not to be made for several days. An agonised Hussain spelt out the consequences.

He told me how pulling out of the Zimbabwe fixture could cost English cricket millions of pounds - u8 million was the figure he cited - and cost a number of his players their last chance of competing at the pinnacle of their sport.

Just as important, they would forfeit four points that could easily lose England the chance of going through to the final stages of the comby Peter Oborne petition - as indeed proved to be the case. He told me that England would not be going.

But he did not once cite personal safety as a reason.

Hussain was speaking to me because he knew that I had recently been travelling in the country, making a Channel 4 documentary about how Robert Mugabe was deliberately withholding food from his own starving people. …