Wednesday, 3 September 2008

End of an era

You have sporting heroes for a wide range of reasons. As a kid, my cricketing idol was David Gower, probably precisely because I knew I’d never be able to bat even remotely like him. After all, no one can. He might have infuriated some pundits because of his perceived lack of application (I’d argue that was rubbish, but it’d take too long just now), but he was one of those sportsmen for whom that hackneyed old cliché “poetry in motion” might have been devised. My other (English) childhood hero was Derek Randall, who had none of Gower’s style, but bags of guts and character. You could identify with ‘Arkle’, or ‘Rags’, as he called himself.

This week, another hero of mine and cricketing legend announced he’s finally bowing out of county cricket after 25 years. As Andrew Miller says here, Graeme Hick fully deserves that title, however disappointing his test career was.

It’s all relative, though. Yes, he never developed into the batsman many thought he could be (the name Bradman even got mentioned in his early years, and certainly people thought he might be another Viv Richards). But on the other hand, there were times when, judged by the standards of the other players around him in the England side, he deserved high praise rather than criticism. Quite apart from his batting, his off-spin was underused by captains, and his superb fielding at slip or in the deep was too rarely factored into the equation when he was being made the scapegoat for another England failure. As Miller says, the security of a central contract might have brought the best out of him, because poor man management, especially by Mike Atherton, certainly did him no favours. What Miller says about that incident at Sydney doesn’t tally with Alec Stewart’s recent account of it, which suggested Atherton (I’ll admit, I’ve always thought him overrated, as a captain especially) stitched Hick up. If he’d done it to someone less mild-mannered, he’d still be picking bat splinters out of his back even now.

Other critics have described Hick as a ‘flat-track bully’, or his batting as mechanical. Again I’d argue, because what they saw as mechanical was just a refreshing simplicity, hitting straight and hard wherever possible. And he played plenty of good knocks on less than great wickets, against the best in the world. He just never quite believed in himself at the top level.

Miller makes good points about how Hick was always happiest at Worcester, and perhaps the last of the great old-fashioned county players, and it’s worth remembering how much he contributed to the success of that late 80s Worcester side. But I wish he’d gone on to point out more clearly just why so many English fans hold him in high regard – his honesty, modesty and supreme unselfishness, the latter shown in the way he was shunted in and out of the England side, and up and down the batting order, without a murmur of complaint.

I’ve seen him play loads of great innings over the years (and I’m not a Worcester fan, by the way), but my enduring memory will be of a day in December 2000. England were on the up. Duncan Fletcher, who had discovered Hick in Zimbabwe in the early 80s and then captained him, was the new England coach and gave him another chance. He responded well at first, but by the end of the series in Pakistan he looked like he might be on his way out once and for all.

I was watching on the TV at work as England were chasing 176 to win at Karachi, and it was getting dark. Really dark. Pakistan used delaying tactics to try to salvage a draw, but ultimately just made life harder for their own baffled fielders. Still, when Hick came in, there was plenty left to do. A lesser man might have started worrying about his own place at this stage, playing with one eye on his average. Not Hick. He got stuck straight into the bowling, allowing Graham Thorpe to play the anchor role, and saw England right to the brink of victory. Atherton, Thorpe and others took the plaudits, and two tests later, Hick was gone for good. That was him all over, though – a great team man who was happiest out of the spotlight. As Andrew Miller says, county cricket will certainly never see his like again, and it'll be a poorer place without him. There's rumours that he'll enjoy a last big pay day in one of the Indian leagues, in which case good luck to him - he deserves a good send-off.

No comments: