Cricket: Hooper ready to assume a superior role: Rob Steen meets a showman settling in to new surroundings with a swagger

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The Independent Online
FOR sheer gall it took some beating. At the start of the fourth day of last summer's Oval Test, the West Indies, already three wickets down after following on, were up the creek and looking for a paddle. Caution, one assumed, would be the keynote. Instead, Carl Hooper launched three sixes inside the opening 20 minutes.

If this suggests a man who had mislaid his marbles, nothing could be further from the truth. These were correct, calculated, impeccably timed strokes, not wild, reckless biffs, each designed to unsettle the bowler and dispel the cloud of subjugation. Few players would have even contemplated such audacity, but then few possess the Guyanan's gifts.

Hooper has certainly deployed them effectively in this, his first county season. After setting an early pace for the swiftest hundred of the summer with an 82-ball assault on his Championship debut for Kent against Durham, he has continued to score with freedom and elegance. His curmudgeonly off-breaks, meanwhile, have proved an integral factor in his county's march to next Saturday's Benson and Hedges Cup final.

All the same, Kent appeared to have taken a risk in offering Hooper a two-year contract last winter. The figures, after all, indicated an under-achiever. His average from 32 Tests was barely 28, while his 15 wickets had cost 83.13 runs a throw. Indeed, this wayward output ultimately led him to be dropped from the West Indies' inaugural Test against South Africa in April, a source of intense disappointment.

Revealingly, none of Hooper's three Test centuries has been made on home soil, reflecting the incessant pressure to justify the selector's faith.

'I used to let the critics get to me, but over the past year or so I have learned to relax,' he said. 'You can't please these people, so now I don't worry. As a result I feel I have become more solid, more consistent.'

The effect has also been a liberating one. In a low-scoring series against Pakistan two winters ago, Hooper headed the West Indian batting averages, navigating a treacherous surface at Lahore for a resourceful 134 - this in a game in which no other batsman reached 60.

The glittering 111 that lit up Lord's the following June captured a man casting aside the shackles of introversion; a tour average of 85.46, the highest by a West Indian in England, thrusting the point home with no little eloquence.

What makes his progress all the more remarkable is the fact that Hooper is entirely self-taught. The majority of his family live in New York and cricket meant little to them.

'I never had any formal coaching at all,' he revealed before his first tour here in 1988. 'I worked it out for myself.' When Clive Lloyd recommended him to the Central Lancashire League club, Werneth, two years earlier, he nevertheless noted a correctness he had rarely encountered in a 19-year-old.

Hooper vindicated Lloyd's foresight with 5,796 runs in four summers, becoming the first player to pass 2,000 in a Central Lancashire League season. Predictably, the sense of challenge soon dissolved.

'Being a pro in League cricket can be tough,' Hooper admitted, 'but once you gain respect, fear even, it becomes less demanding and you lose your competitive edge, so I had no hesitation when Kent offered me a fresh challenge. What with chuck-ups (declaration bowling) and captains negotiating it's been different to what I expected, but I'm enjoying it. The players have helped, rallying round me, making me feel at home.'

In common with David Gower, another batsman who blends exquisite timing with a flair for hara- kiri, Hooper seems to occupy a different planet to that inhabited by mere mortal colleagues. The eyes alone, two piercing slits recalling Lee Van Cleef at his most inscrutable, set him apart. His team-mate, Graham Cowdrey, confirms this impression, but stresses that familiarity has warded off contempt.

'Carl never said a lot for the first month he was here, but then we played Derbyshire in front of a packed Canterbury crowd in the quarter-finals of the Benson and Hedges, and suddenly he really began to buzz,' Cowdrey recalled.

'Maybe it was the occasion, maybe it was the tightness of the game, but ever since then he's really been one of the team. You have to be lucky with overseas players. Some waltz in and treat this as lower-grade cricket, but not Carl.

'He's made an extraordinary difference to the side. Standing at the other end to what must be one of the best batsmen in the world certainly lifts me.'

All that remains for Hooper is to lift himself up where he belongs. Self-affirmation in his own land cannot be far away.

(Photograph omitted)