Cricket: Hooper in a hurry to show genius

Kent 186 and 517 Lancashire 445 and 125-2 Match drawn
THE skills of some of the world's greatest batsmen require the qualification "on their day" more than most, and Carl Hooper is undoubtedly among them. There is something of David Gower in the way that his languid elegance, which on those days can appear impossible to bowl to, seemingly slips into casualness on others. Until two days ago, his return to Kent after absence on international duty in 1997 consisted of Championship scores of 1, 4 and 4, and while his one-day record included a couple of 60s, it was almost marked by a humbling duck against British Universities. Paul Strang's successful season at Canterbury last year was beginning to take on a nostalgic glow.

In hauling Kent back into this game by making the second double century of his career, Hooper magnificently revealed his other side, the one that has kept his batting average in the mid-40s despite his frustrating ability to lose the plot occasionally. This was "touch" play of the highest class, silky but murderous, never becalmed for long. It ensured that at least in one corner of England there was Championship cricket on a sunny Saturday afternoon, to reward the substantial number who chose to support the summer game rather than the climax of the football season. Given the contempt shown towards such supporters by the cricket authorities, whose decision yet again to make Saturday the fourth day of the Championship ensured locked gates and empty grounds in most counties, one wonders for how much longer such a faithful following can be taken for granted.

There is no weak spot in Hooper's armoury when in this mood - huge sixes, biffing cuts and hooks were mixed with the subtle dabs that always kept the scoreboard alive. When he passed 200 with 20 minutes to go until lunch, the comparison with Michael Atherton's earlier century was a revealing one.

Both innings were recuperative efforts by world-class batsmen short of form. But whereas Atherton's confidence-restoring hundred had been reached in 311 balls, Hooper's first came in 99, the West Indian passed 200 in 207 balls, precisely two-thirds of the ration needed for Atherton to get half as far. In other words, here were two solutions to the same problem - one carefully built run by run, the other constructed by a genius in a hurry. And between them they helped to set up the game's final act. Having passed his personal milestone, collecting the last 10 runs with comparative caution, Hooper holed out at long-off, having hit 23 fours and half a dozen sixes.

The Kent skipper, Steve Marsh, could hardly have had a declaration possibility in mind when his team found themselves 259 adrift on the first innings, they now set about moving towards the required equation. Although the Kent lower order crumbled either side of lunch - not to Wasim Akram, who is nursing a groin strain - Marsh probably just about got there. He reached a brisk 50 immediately before the end of the Kent innings, and the game was now nicely poised, with Lancashire needing 259 - coincidentally the first innings margin - from a minimum of 50 overs.

They soon abandoned interest in the chase, however, when they lost two early wickets. Atherton was a reluctant lbw victim, shouldering arms to Dean Headley, and then Hooper leaped back into the game, diving at second slip to catch Nathan Wood. Ironically, on such a good batting wicket, Kent might have stood a better chance had Lancashire prospered early on - then a few quick wickets could have introduced panic. As it was, an early finish was agreed upon, but we will savour memories of Hooper at his finest for a long time to come.