Cricket: Natural yearns to be a natural choice

First Night: Ben Hollioake; The gifted cricketer they call Little Ben is facing his biggest challenge.
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It was said of Ben Hollioake when his play was illuminating Sri Lanka last February: "What is he doing here? Why isn't he in the West Indies? What a temperament he has." Something along similar lines might easily have applied to his presence at The Oval on Friday. Nothing would have changed, except the meaning.

Back in the winter, Hollioake was the outstanding player of the England A team's tour. He scored two centuries in the mini-Tests, he took early wickets with the new ball and if the game was not exactly easy for him, he was clearly at ease with it. Hollioake had worked out playing methods as both batsman and bowler which not only worked but also confirmed immense self-assurance. Not cocky or swaggering, simply bereft of doubt.

It was probably this, allied to the plaudits of both peers and seers, which placed the expectations at such a high level when at 11.15am on Friday he went out to bat for the first time in a Test match on his home ground. It was probably this which persuaded his captain to bring him on as first change bowler seven hours later in the endeavour to curb the gallop of the opposition opening batsmen.

But this was a different Ben Hollioake. It was not that his returns were poor, it was that the manner in which they were achieved seemed to be at odds with his nature. If he had a method it seemed to be that of a 20-year-old who did not quite know what he should do next but was willing to have a go in a desperate attempt to make something happen. It was anything but easy for him. The game, at some moments, became an unfathomable mystery.

Hollioake began his international career in a blaze of glory at Lord's early last summer. He was included in the England one-day side for the final match of the series against Australia. How he strutted on the grand stage.

He put the old enemy to the sword with a bravura exhibition. He knew no fear. A couple of months later he was introduced to the full Test side. Such was the aura surrounding him that it was decreed perfectly feasible that a 19- year-old with a batting average of 28 and a bowling average slightly higher could save the Ashes.

His shot to get off the mark was the stuff dreams are made of, too. It was the seventh ball he received in Test cricket and he placed it through mid-wicket for four. Caressed it more like. And then he was gone. The selectors, having decided he was a saviour, also decided he had better return to his county and learn his trade.

They overlooked him for the senior tour of the West Indies and he was sent with the A team under the vigilant, knowing stewardship of Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch. And that was where Ranjit Fernando came in. Fernando it was, as the the manager of Sri Lanka, who gazed upon the young Hollioake and spoke those words of disbelief that this cricketer, mature beyond his years, was messing about on A tours. But those two centuries in that series against Sri Lanka A, the second a magisterial 163 which included 11 sixes, were the first of his fledgling career. The new-ball wickets he took were among the first too because he was not accustomed to having the new ball.

Still, it was not only Fernando who was awe-struck. Gatting was impressed by his charge, the way he built an innings, the way he controlled his bowling with his open-chested action. The Gatting verdict was succinct and resonant: "He could make a lot of people very happy." His future was all in front of him and it was of the golden variety.

The selectors might have been wise to decree that it should start immediately. But after some initial sparring in the early-season one- dayers Hollioake was overlooked for the series against South Africa. Called into one squad, he was omitted from the team on the morning of the match. There were some mutterings about technical deficiencies in his batting, but his foot movement had always been a tad suspect.

He went back to Surrey again and that might have been that for this summer except that Andrew Flintoff, the big, cheerful biffer from Lancashire fluffed his entry to the big theatre. If one 20-year-old could not do it then another had to be given the chance, even though Hollioake's figures for the 1998 season were not of the type that demanded attention from his mum, let alone serious international selectors.

There were 25 wickets at 22.48, 11 of which had come in a clutch in August (at least this was form). But there were only 298 runs at 17.52 an innings.

So they picked Ben on potential again for The Oval. The natural inclination for anybody who was not a selector was to wonder whether if had they stuck with him when they first selected him that he might have started to realise it by now. But there was comfort to be had in the assessment that he was a big-game player. Gatting and Gooch said so and was not David Gower, for one, always bored with county cricket?

Hollioake responded to the call by being late for nets on Wednesday. There had been a mix-up over his alarm call apparently. It was not the sort of thing that would have happened in the days before Lord MacLaurin when England players shared rooms. Ben was fined for his tardiness but it would not, it was emphasised, affect his chances of playing in the final Test of the summer.

Graeme Hick's century ended early on the second day. Hollioake made his way down the steep steps from the dressing-room, his helmet already in place. The first ball from Pramodya Wickramasinghe was speared into his toes. Hollioake dug it out. The fourth ball was wide and the young man slashed it past backward point. It was on the up and uppish but it went thrillingly for four.

The innings was to last an hour and a half, the perfect length, they say, for a Hollywood movie. During the course of this 90 minutes Hollioake somehow lost the plot. He curbed his natural attacking tendencies to the point almost of strokelessness. He was a man playing for a place on the tour to Australia.

Muttiah Muralitharan, the 11th best bowler in the world and at present its best spinner, had him in several minds. Hollioake said of playing spin: "I used to get caught at long-on or long-off more than I should have during the year I had at school in Perth. I've kept that in my mind ever since and will keep it up for the rest of my life." At 12.45, 15 minutes before lunch he decided to take Murali on. He took a pace down the wicket and hit him to deep mid-on. The rest of your life is a long time.

The Sri Lankans had made a frantic start to their innings when Hollioake was asked to bowl. He was certainly quicker than of old (old being relative in the case of a 20-year-old) but he mixed it up too much and with his determined wide chest and his flapping left arm he could have been hailing a taxi instead of bowling. The Sri Lankans took 10 off his first over, eight off his third.

Hollioake may come again, probably, desirably, in Australia this winter. But on his return to the England team his ice-cool, confident temperament, maybe the greatest of all his assets, failed him. Test cricket is a hard, hard game, whoever you are.