Cricket: Hollioake's world vision

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The Independent Online
FROM IDOL worship to idle speculation over what all the fuss was about is a short road for an English sportsman. It is a journey often propelled by unreasonable expectation and Adam Hollioake has taken fewer than two years to make it.

"I started off my international career much too well," he said before embarking this weekend for England's final preparatory tournament before the World Cup. "I was never going to be able to live up to what I achieved then, but I suppose it was natural that people expected me to. Perhaps it would have been better if I hadn't scored so many. I created pressure for myself."

The excursion to Sharjah for the tri-nation Coca-Cola Cup early next month is as important for Hollioake as it is for England. He may be only one of several players attempting to confirm a place, but his likely berth in the batting order at No 6 will affect the balance and security of the whole side.

England's form diminished rapidly in the long one-day series in Australia two months ago and the 15 players they have picked for the World Cup must first seize the opportunity to regroup just as quickly in Sharjah. Not only must they ensure that their array of dodgy backs, hamstrings and groins comes through intact, but they must also return with a firm idea of their most formidable team. The squad could probably have done without the announcement last week of the imminent departure of the coach, David Lloyd.

It may not destabilise them, but it will not exactly have a settling effect either. If the players respect Lloyd half as much as they have claimed in the past few days they will be prepared to die for him in the next three months (as long as the backs, the hamstrings and the groins haven't gone first).

Hollioake, as ever, appeared to be unworried. His form might have wavered but his self-belief has remained endearingly intact. He has always been straightforward in assessing his objectives in the game and analysing his own form.

"I am a much better player now than when I first played for England," he said. "I'm more experienced, I react better in different situations and I'm a lot more equipped to cope with them. I'm only interested in coming first, nothing else interests me. We can win the World Cup, of course we can. I'm not going to stand here and think anything else."

His entry to the England one-day side was the stuff of romance, the stuff, on reflection, he could have done without. In both of his first two matches against Pakistan in 1996 he took four wickets, but it was the next two against Australia the following season which established his reputation. He made 66 not out at Headingley, hitting the winning runs, and two days later at a sun-drenched Oval, he made 53 not out and repeated the feat. Hollioake simply looked the part, and no less a judge than Richie Benaud enthused about his class.

By that winter he was one-day captain and led the team to victory (in Sharjah). But in the West Indies early last year it began to go wrong. Hollioake eventually lost the captaincy, and while he has kept his place he has never again been as successful as he was in those initial outings.

The effectiveness of his bowling was significantly reduced - for a while the slower ball became his stock delivery - and while that recovered during the recent Australian series his batting was rarely productive.

"I think my bowling was all right again. I've got it back from a little down spell," he said. "But I wasn't too happy with my batting. I should have made more runs than I did."

It is worth recording that he was the victim of several poor decisions in Australia (which he accepted without demur) but he also made some poor choices of stroke, perhaps affected by the occasion. The comparison has been made between Hollioake and Michael Bevan, who bats No 6 for Australia and despite a tendency towards selfishness is generally deemed to be the most effective one-day batsman in the world with an average above 50 and a strike rate above 70. Hollioake clearly finds it odious.

"We're different types of player," he said, "and we're expected to do different jobs. I'm still reasonably happy with my averages with both the bat and the ball and I think they can be improved."

It is an indication of England's belief in the value of experience and taking advantage of home conditions that Hollioake is the second youngest player in the World Cup squad at the age of 27 (six years older than Andrew Flintoff). Ignoring the telling statistic that no home side has ever won the World Cup, it is still a bold strategy.

Alec Stewart, the captain, believes it is one that covers all the options. It is a combination of specialists and the traditional English one-day all-rounder. Perhaps it is too much of a mish-mash, perhaps the selectors have made the mistake of steering neither one course nor the other.

But Stewart would have none of it. "We have got several styles of batsmen and several styles of bowlers, which we will utilise as and when required," he said. "The best England one-day side I played in was the 1992 World Cup when we reached the final. This one can be the equal of that or better."

A few weeks in Sharjah might be enough to validate his confidence or endorse the conjecture that a dreadful mistake has been made. If the Coca- Cola Cup slips through England's hands like so much desert sand, solid reasons for pressing their World Cup claims will be that much harder to find.