Cricket: Game of Hick and myths

'Building people up, knocking them down. I was a perfect candidate. I should have been more thick-skinned'; Andrew Longmore speaks to a batsman anxious to rebuild his confidence and status
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From Graeme Hick the Saviour to Graeme Hick the Failure, you can shuffle the stereotypes like cards. Now, as Hick returns to international colours for England's tour to Lahore and the one-day Champions' Trophy in Sharjah, we have another: Graeme Hick the New Man. Except that this one might be truer to reality than the others.

After a year slaughtering county bowlers and chewing the cud on distant outfields, Hick has shuffled his priorities. The shyness, incongruously encased in such a formidable physique, has been replaced by an inner confidence which falls short of trust but embraces surprising humour and warmth. A man patently ill at ease absorbing the grudging prejudices and hopes of a nation has, at the age of 31, accepted his failure and moved into calmer waters.

Failure? Hick introduces the word first. But four centuries into next summer, Hick will become the 24th player to join a list which is hardly a roll call for failure: Bradman, WG Grace, Compton, Hutton, Hobbs, Boycott, Gooch. Ninety-six centuries' worth of failure. But then the other killer statistic, the one most often cited as proof of Hick's unworthiness: only four of them came in Tests. No one is more aware of the imbalance than Hick, who has instant recall of each milestone.

"I don't look back and have any regrets," he said. "With my statistics I've had a lot more highs than many still playing, but the Test arena is the one I want to get back into very quickly. I want to be able to walk away from Test cricket having played really well. I owe it to myself."

Listening to the conviction in the voice, sensing the relaxation, it is hard to reconcile this Hick with the statuesque figure hypnotised by Waqar Younis or reduced to peg-legged jitters by the short-pitched fast bowling the West Indians so charmingly call "chin music". The accepted theory, one of the many propounded by the amateur psychologists, is that beneath the build of a lumberjack beats the tender heart of a privileged country boy; and that the softness identified so brutally by Ray Illingworth can be traced back to his days on the Highveld plateau in his native Zimbabwe where he scored his first century at the age of six years and eight months for Banket Junior against Mangula Junior and where net sessions in the back garden involved thumping African bowlers to all corners of the Trelawney Estate. Tim Curtis recalls his first sighting of the 17-year-old prodigy in the nets at Worcester: "Here was this massive figure hitting every ball straight back without it even touching the side-netting." A big fish in a little pond. There are echoes of truth in the analysis.

But it was always assumed that the weakness lay within Hick. Like the rest of the country, players and management were bewitched by the myth. "You have to remember there weren't a lot of people around who really knew me, but when I first walked into the England dressing-room I certainly didn't receive a lot of advice," Hick recalled. "Being a very quiet person, it was probably as hard for them as it was for me, but I was looking for a guiding hand, someone to tell me what was happening. I never felt comfortable."

In fact, just the opposite. Whenever things went wrong, Hick was blamed. "I've been dropped five times. Three were justified because I wasn't playing well, but even when I scored 140 in Durban, it was only a couple of Tests before my name was back in the frying pan again. I felt like a bit of a scapegoat."

The following summer, Hick subsided to Waqar in a flurry of half-truths: bat too heavy, nerve shot, technique faulty, feet leaden, no good. Hick took his shattered ego back to Worcester and to his family, his son and daughter, and a year in the wilderness. "Building people up, knocking them down. I was a perfect candidate for that. I should have been a little more thick-skinned, told people where to go, but that's not my way or my manner. I am a sensitive person and some of the criticism hurt.

"But in my year out of the England fold, I feel I've cleared my mind so that if I come across all the criticism again, I'll be better able to cope with it. The fear of failure, if you like. I'm coming to terms with that. I've learnt what life is like for my family when I'm not there. In the past, I've drifted along with my cricket quite happily and been quite oblivious to their lives and what they might need. Now I go back home and it's not the end of the world if I haven't scored any runs. Their happiness is more than just batting balls around and that's what has helped me to discover a new confidence in the way I'm playing and the way I'm feeling about it as well as for me as a person.

"If and when I go out to bat again in a Test, I'll feel very different about myself and hopefully be more relaxed in my batting. I've always played my best cricket when I'm positive."

The young Hampshire attack would testify to Hick's continued appetite for runs. By all accounts, his unbeaten 303 in the final championship match of the season could have been doubled but for rain. The first-class averages say he was the best batsman in the country, but the selectors turned to the Hollioakes and Mark Ramprakash first, throwing Hick the consolation prize of a one-day tour to Sharjah.

Hick feels another myth coming on. "I don't want to be labelled a one- day player. I regard myself as being more than that. I would love people to be talking about the 1999 World Cup as my World Cup. But, at the same time, I want to remind the selectors I'm still around and if they're looking for a Test number three, four or five, just give me a ring."