Cricket: Hick seeks fruit in Eden Gardens: Martin Johnson reports from Calcutta on the hopeful English batsman out to stay in

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The Independent Online
BUT for the fact that Graham Gooch will walk out on to Eden Gardens tomorrow to play his 100th Test match, the spotlight will be firmly on the batsman who has apparently shrivelled under its glare. Pressure is an overworked word in what is essentially just a game, but if Graeme Hick does not leave an indelible mark on this series, this series is liable to leave an indelible mark on him.

England's selectors have made a long-term investment in Hick, but there is little point in laying down a fine wine in a cellar unless you eventually get to drink it, and in terms of his Test-match career, Hick remains drier than an Indian bar on holy day.

It remains something of a mystery as to why Hick's bat should resemble a wide-gauge railway sleeper in a one-day international, and a stick of celery in a Test match. In 17 Test innings, he has scored 307 runs at an average of 18.06, and is in danger of being as thoroughly pigeon-holed as a one-day specialist as Neil Fairbrother. For someone as fiercely determined as Hick, he must feel like a chef with aspirations to a Michelin star stuck behind a chip-shop counter.

Five years ago, needing a century in his last available innings to complete 1,000 runs before the end of May, Hick made 157 against the West Indians, no less. Three years later, having qualified to play Test cricket for his adopted country, the West Indies attack took him apart so comprehensively that Jeffrey Dujon said after the series: 'We can get him out any time we like.'

Last winter, Hick's ability to succeed at the highest level was further questioned in New Zealand by the home team's former vice-captain, John Bracewell, who disparagingly wrote him off as a 'flat- track bully', and after sliding as low down the order as No 7 against Pakistan last summer, Hick would scarcely be human if his stomach is not currently churning.

Hick's career before he began playing for England was little short of phenomenal. There was nothing he could not do, even though his batting always had the clinical air of the surgeon's scalpel about it, rather than the musketeer's dashing blade. It was a bit like watching Bjorn Borg play tennis at his peak, nothing flashy but ruthlessly effective.

Now, he looks nervous and vulnerable, which ironically is just what he might need to get the public behind him. Zimbabwe is not dissimilar to South Africa and Australia in treatment of sporting heroes - over the top when they win, pretend it never happened when they do not. In England, success is invariably greeted with suspicion, and failure attracts the sort of crowd that used to gather round a French guillotine. Grab the best seat, pull out the knitting, and wait impatiently for the tumbrel.

Hick may now technically be English, but it took him a while to adjust to the national psyche. 'It is part of the English way to criticise their sportsmen,' he said. 'The more successful you are, the more flak you are likely to attract.

'It breeds not necessarily non- winners but people who wonder whether it might not be worth the hassle of competing. There is nothing more deflating than doing well and getting slagged off for it anyway.

'I remember when I was in Australia a couple of years ago, and their top squash player had just won a tournament, the newspapers went mad. Two weeks later, he lost to the same guy in another final, and I found it buried away in the stop press.' The inference being that in England he would have been buried in an entirely different way.

Hick, not unnaturally, has become more sensitive to criticism since his England career began - 'after a while, you get tired of being laughed at' - and the fact that he has consulted the same psychologist/motivator as David Gower would suggest that he might have lost some of the self- belief that was once the most striking feature of his game.

However, Hick denies this. 'I merely got a letter from this guy offering some help, David gave him a decent reference, and I thought 'why not, I can't lose anything'. Of course, when everything is going well you don't worry about these things, but it was something I thought was worth exploring.

'I have not lost belief in my own ability, and I'm still enjoying my cricket, but it is very important to me to be a big contributor to the side, and I won't be totally happy unless I achieve that. I'm not someone who enjoys failing.

'There is nothing I want more than to prove my right to a place in the team but, having said that, I am much more relaxed now, and I won't let the pressure get to me as it did when I first came into the side.'

Hick, who plays golf off a single- figure handicap and is a high-class hockey and tennis player, is not used to failure, and not a single member of the England team is of the opinion that he will not eventually go on to become a heavy-scoring Test-match batsman. Robin Smith unequivocally calls him 'the best batsman in the world'.

It is almost unthinkable that Hick might score 100 first-class centuries (as he certainly will) without one of them coming in a Test match. If he needs encouragement, there are parallels in his career with Mike Gatting, who came to India in 1984-85 without a century in 31 Tests, and finally broke his duck in Bombay in his 54th Test innings. Most people still think he is simply too good not to make it at Test level, and probably in a big way.

If not? 'I don't think like that, but let's say that coming on a tour to India makes you appreciate that there is more to life than cricket. I was sitting on a train at Delhi station recently, watching the poverty of the little kids on the platform, and you just felt so sorry for them. It certainly makes you thankful for what you've got, even on your worst days.'

(Photograph omitted)