Cricket: Hick finds the right answers: Derek Pringle assesses the man aiming to halt Warwickshire's all-conquering progress in Saturday's NatWest trophy

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GRAEME HICK may be a reformed schizophrenic. Until recently, there used to be two of him. One, when the bowling was below waist level, was world class. The other, when the bowling was quicker and at his chest, barely merited a mention in despatches. But, with his first home Test century at Headingley having been followed by an aggressive 81 during England's win at The Oval, has the real Graeme Hick at last decided to stand up? Further evidence may be presented at Lord's on Saturday if he plays a major role in bringing the NatWest trophy to Worcestershire for the first time.

For the believers, there have been false dawns before. Many were convinced that his brilliant hundred against India in Bombay two years ago would mark the the turning point in what had frankly been an unfulfilled career. Yet only months later, Hick struggled to combat the hustle and bustle of Merv Hughes and was dropped for three of the six Ashes Tests. To compound matters, he nearly always got a start, getting to 20 or 30, before reaching an impasse, usually against well directed short-pitched bowling.

Critics also point out that when he has done well - and this still holds true - it has nearly always been in the second innings of a Test, either when the match is beyond saving or there is little to play for. Test matches are usually decided by the first innings, so it is imperative that batsmen take charge early on. Only then are batsmen likely to contribute to a winning cause.

The statistics, however, do not back this up. Of his 29 Tests to date, Hick has averaged only 36.41 in his first innings, and 33.45 in his second. The marked difference lies only between the early and latter parts of his career. After 12 Tests, he averaged only 17.52 overall.

These statistics do not necessarily suggest that when the pressure really bites, Hick has been found wanting. In fact, assuming responsibility is something that, over the years, has become second nature to Hick, ever since his prodigious talent first came to light at Prince Edward's school in Harare. But whereas he was made to feel wanted when he arrived at Worcester, Test cricket did not offer the same welcoming environment. He has taken a long time to come to terms with that.

When a shy and unexpressive young man, used to being lauded, becomes the object of criticism, he suddenly feels vulnerable. He began to question everything. 'Doubt,' as Socrates would have it, 'may be the origin of truth.' But to the sportsman it can be a career- threatening malaise.

David Houghton, a team- mate from Hick's days in Zimbabwe and now the Worcestershire coach, believes there are many reasons for Hick's slow progress at Test level. 'One of the problems is that some people have been crying for his head after every game. When there is so much pressure to maintain your place, it's impossible to relax. What Graeme needed was for someone to reassure him and let him play the way he can. To go out and dominate. And although this is something that a lot of people had been saying to him, he needed to hear it from the top. That has now happened.'

Now he is batting at three - his favoured position all along - he has at last been given the reassurance he needs, as both Michael Atherton and Ray Illingworth are avowed supporters. Houghton believes that Hick, at the age of 28, has overcome his Test match phobia. 'His best is still to come and I expect him to achieve for England what David Boon has done for Australia.'

Hick was doubly unfortunate that his first series was against the rampaging West Indies fast bowlers. Not only had the seven-year wait for him to qualify for England driven public expectation to frenzied levels, the likes of messrs Ambrose, Marshall, Patterson and Walsh ensured it would be a baptism of fire that few could have countered. By being a batting phenomenon long before he could back it up in the Test arena, Hick's failures left us all feeling cheated. It wasn't Hick, but our expectations, that failed us.

Inevitably, there was talk of shortcomings in technique; that he was too rigid in his footwork to cope with the short ball. These seemed to be borne out, and a rapid loss of confidence meant that the West Indies exploited his uncertainty ruthlessly. What followed was an avalanche of advice, much of it contradictory, from all manner of sources. Hick was too polite to ignore most of it and he became confused. As this coincided with a general deterioration of the pitches at Worcester (something that has yet to be rectified) not even a stint in friendly surroundings provided succour and his confidence lay shattered.

This was not helped by Hick being made to feel guilty about playing for England. By pursuing a sporting future in England, something Allan Lamb and Robin Smith have also done, Hick has rejected his homeland for the rootless existence of a mercenary. When he made his decision to become English in 1985, just as Zimbabwe were attempting to persuade the ICC to give them Test status, Hick further compounded his guilt over defection. By losing their trump card, Zimbabwe had to wait another six years.

It is a long time since a young Hick first arrived to play for Worcestershire. In those days, unsure of expressing himself in conversation, he was ribbed by his team mates to such an extent that he took to saying 'Pardon' every time someone spoke to him, just to give himself time to make sure there was no hidden agenda to the conversation. If he can help bring the Natwest trophy to New Road and the Ashes back to England, his batting will not only have come of age, it will provide an articulate response to his critics.