Cricket: A nerveless, natural talent

Stephen Brenkley sees a young tyro leave the chorus line and become a star
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The Independent Online
It was the moment for Surrey's team of all the talents, and few of the achievements, to deliver. All week leading up to the Benson & Hedges Cup final, the whole world (including their coach, Dave Gilbert) had castigated them. Nottinghamshire had merely humiliated them in a NatWest Trophy tie.

Surrey stood accused of getting above themselves, of securing fancy agents before fancy trophies (unless last year's Sunday League is counted). Bang in the firing line, it was clear, was Ben Hollioake: 19 years old, multi-gifted, multi-hyped and maybe, just maybe, promoted too soon in every sense.

Well, young Ben has demonstrated again that he is utterly unworried by expectations. It was his first cup final, his second appearance at Lord's. On the first, for England in the third Texaco Trophy match earlier this summer, he made a maturely serene 63 from 48 balls. Yesterday Hollioake did it again, this time getting to within two runs of a thoroughly merited century. It was an innings he assembled from 112 balls.

He proved as unflappable at the crease as he was talking to the press after the match: "I would have settled for a first-ball duck if we had come out the victors," he said. "I don't think I'm that close to the Test side, but at least they've got me in the back of their minds."

His brother Adam, the Surrey captain, said: "Coming into this game, he had hardly batted for a month. But he has strength of character and the ability to play on a big stage. He stole the game from Kent."

In presenting Ben with the Gold Award for being man of the match, Michael Atherton observed - and perhaps he was not being especially prescient - that this was a young man with a great future.

Surrey were chasing a meagre Kent total of 212, far from enough considering that they had chosen to bat first. The younger Hollioake was in as early as the first over of the reply, but he walked out to bat looking for all the world as though he was born to this.

Whether he is ready for Test cricket yet may be doubtful, but these are the sort of doubts that have prevented many young players of recent generations from coming through as they might have been expected.

Nothing epitomised the Hollioake approach more than an incident in the fifth over. He had already thumped a drive dismissively through extra cover and then plundered another boundary through mid-wicket. But then Martin McCague got one to bounce off a length, which Hollioake miscued in the air to mid-on.

It fell marginally short of a scrambling Mark Ealham before the errant ball was swiftly retrieved by McCague. Having seen Hollioake advance from his crease, he narrowly missed the stumps at the striker's end.

After thus surviving two desperately close chances off one delivery, Hollioake chose not to take stock but to whip the next ball disdainfully off his legs for another boundary.

He comfortably outscored Alec Stewart, despite the efforts of a wayward electronic scoreboard which insisted incessantly on getting the scores wrong. Still, it was only a final.

Hollioake was unbothered. It was possible to imagine Gilbert in Surrey's dressing-room, apeing Warner Baxter in the classic film musical 42nd Street. "Listen to me, and you listen hard," he might have said. "You keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out. And, Hollioake, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star."

He did. But, with all those agents about, say it quietly.