Cricket: Hollioake feels the hard knocks

Cricket: England's bright young talent struggles to make his mark as injuries and lack of confidence take their toll
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The Independent Online
BEN HOLLIOAKE was asked what he had learned on the tour of Australia. His answer came certainly and quickly and despite the smile with which it was delivered, the underlying sadness was unmistakable. "I have learned I don't want to happen to me again what's happened to me on this tour," he said.

He left England in October still as the brightest of bright young things and three months on he knew he was in serious danger of returning to England as the forgotten man. He played in none of the Test matches and after six games in the one-day series he remained the only one of England's squad of 16 not to have played. Selection in the seventh was possible but he was not exactly gathering extra supplies of kit whitener in preparation for the moment.

Such is Hollioake's depth of natural assurance that he was still able to remember the lines more commonly associated with him. "To some degree the confidence has taken a knock," he said. "You start to think, `Am I good enough', not `I am good enough', but it hasn't taken such a knock that if I got picked for the next game I wouldn't back myself to get a hundred."

So he might, but whatever he achieves in the remainder of the Carlton & United series he cannot conceal the truth that his first senior tour has been an unwelcome and unexpected experience, and that not everything will come easily. He sustained an injury early on in Australia and by the time he recovered, even a losing team was difficult to break into.

What opportunities he had he failed to grasp. In the notorious defeat in Hobart by Australia A he was dismissed on a flat pitch by an occasional bowler, Matthew Elliott. Subsequently he was confronted with the criticism of David Graveney, the tour manager and chairman of the England selectors.

Graveney might have appeared slightly harsh in observing that Hollioake could not continue to live on two performances a long time ago (the 63 he made on his international debut against Australia and the 98 he made in the Benson and Hedges Cup final) but he was perhaps attempting a stab at psychology.

Hollioake defended himself robustly. He said his one-day county form had been sound last summer and that his bowling in all forms of cricket had been consistently good. But he must know, if he has developed the capacity to examine his own performances, that he has to do more to convince the selectors now. Making a maiden first-class hundred for Surrey would be a start.

It is probable that Hollioake is a big-game player and it is at least arguable that the selectors, having picked him at the age of 19, should simply have kept faith with him. As it is, he has played only three Tests and six one-day internationals since he was initially selected in both forms of the game in 1997, and he could easily have trebled both numbers.

Hollioake's relaxed approach has also raised concerns, but presumably the selectors knew his character before they dallied with his potential. "It's something that I'm always going to be up against," he said. "But the management knows that when it's time to practise, I practise as hard as anyone.

"Having said that, I know I'm not the best netter in the world. You've got to have nets to keep in touch but there have certainly been times this tour when I've had a bit of nettitis. Even when I'm in my best form on the park it is still hard work in the nets."

He lifted up his shirt to reveal a bruise on his chest inflicted in the nets while batting. It probably would not have happened in the middle, but the middle is somewhere that has become a foreign country.

Hollioake is an instinctive cricketer, which is what England need. The trouble with that, allied to a reluctance for nets, is that technical faults which occur are not so easily removed. There was a time last season, when Hollioake was called up to the England squad, that the management was said to be somewhat astonished at the way his batting had gained looseness. His chest-on bowling technique, too, does not allow much margin for error if he is to make effective use of his bounce.

England have already invested too much in him to let him be wasted. What they have to decide is whether to ensure he accrues some county form (and that can be meaningless) or select him regardless, which will serve a purpose only if they keep on picking him and have got it right.

Hollioake is an extremely affable fellow and if he has a high opinion of his ability, that is as it should be. Others have encouraged him in this regard. He did not score that resplendent half-century against the Aussies on a lovely early summer at Lord's by having self-doubt.

"Sometimes, because you did so well early on, the public thinks that is what you should achieve every time. Maybe that's what I thought I should every achieve every time.

"I don't know what my form is like because I haven't played. But you never know what can happen. I may not play any of the games but then somebody gets injured and I could be the player of the final."

Mark Taylor, the captain of Australia, has been named Australian of the Year. The award comes amid speculation that Taylor is about to retire from the game. He admitted after receiving the highest honour available that possible retirement was weighing heavily on his mind. "I just want to enjoy the next two days with my family," he said.