Cricket: Relaxed Hick in the mood to play the power game: Simon Hughes in New Delhi thinks that England's enigma has rediscovered his sense of direction at just the right time

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The Independent Online
IT IS time for Graeme Hick to throw off his shackles. Almost 10 years ago he first appeared in English cricket as a brawny youngster who thumped good bowling about dismissively. Gradually the relentless machine that is professional cricket has gnawed away at his talent, undermining his technique and eroding self-belief. It was claimed he was only a flat- track bully, that he could not play fast bowling. Of course he can. Anyone who saw him pummel the West Indies for 172 in 1988 to reach 1,000 runs before the end of May will know that.

True, he did perish several times during searching examinations from Ambrose and Co; but when the West Indies' battery target a particular victim, as they did with Hick, they do not take prisoners. There will be no pace barrage to worry him when the Test series starts in Calcutta on Friday, no spin wizard either. Just orthodox, albeit canny, bowlers. The scene is set for Hick to do business. There is a quiet assurance about his manner on this tour - he does not shroud himself in secrecy as he once did. Instead of disappearing into the sanctuary of his room and immersing himself in a television movie, he is down in the bar talking and laughing through that broad jaw and perfect teeth. This is a good sign.

Jogging from slip to deep cover in the one-day games he bounces where he used to scuttle and everything about his fielding is positive and vigorous. At the crease he looks more purposeful, moving confidently on to the front foot, the bat at last the same fluent extension of his arms it used to be.

Most impressively, Hick is unperturbed by deep, straight fielders - he just clubs the ball over them. Such is his strength (last winter at Lilleshall his fitness levels exceeded those of the England rugby team) that two mis-hits sailed way into the Delhi stands last week. The powerful lofted drive that encouraged me to campaign for a new law regulating intimidatory batting in 1990, has re- emerged and he is playing straighter than the other English batsmen, crucial on Indian pitches, on which the ball tends to shoot. For this reason he should bat No 5 in the England line-up, creating a muscular middle-order alliance with Robin Smith, who is bound to instil Hick with ruthless pride. Their partnership could produce the pivot in the Nineties which Smith and Lamb provided for England in the late Eighties.

Despite his modest Test record, Hick is a reassuring sight striding to the middle almost before the dismissed batsman has reached the pavilion steps. And he has many supporters, not least his county chairman and batmaker, Duncan Fearnley. As his prodigy (so he claims) larrupped the Pakistanis in the Trent Bridge one-day international, Fearnley urged: 'Go on my lad, whap'm. He's a lovely boy y'know, but he listens to too many people.'

He has certainly had a surfeit of mostly conflicting advice, compounded by a microscopic analysis of his tendency to flinch at the fast short ball (Dilip Vengsarkar used to do this and made nearly 7,000 Test runs). Last summer it got so bad that he consulted a psychiatrist, but professional words can achieve only so much. What Hick needs most of all is a big hundred to silence the doubters, much as Mike Gatting did on the last tour here in 1984. Gatting came good, and my hunch is so will Hick.

England getting runs is one thing, bowling India out is quite another, of course. They have some fine batsmen who, after a grilling in South Africa, have returned somewhat shellshocked. All, apart from Sachin Tendulkar, are susceptible to aggressive short-pitched bowling. For this reason Devon Malcolm and Chris Lewis should be used in short, fiery bursts, leaving DeFreitas (if he can recover from his groin injury) to do the stock bowling and Paul Jarvis to harry the middle order. Jarvis has looked the most rhythmical and the fastest bowler, and he extracts plenty of life with his lower trajectory and whippy action. He also has a dangerous, skidding bouncer which sometimes cuts back. With these Headingley-type juicy early starts, he is proving a handy asset.

It is hard to fathom what England's best spin combination will be as none of them has bowled much, and when they have, they probably wished they had not. Perversely it is the good ball (ie - on a length) which has tended to be hit out of the ground, but once you start getting neck-ache watching deliveries disappear, confidence evaporates. Phil Tufnell's is the most disturbing case. He has bowled only a dozen overs in 10 days and has still not quite come to terms with the hysterical crowds and wealth of soft missiles. (The tickets at Jaipur stated that spectators should not bring 'bells, horns, sticks, glass bottles, looking-glasses' into the ground.)

If he plays in Calcutta he will be helped by two factors. First the Bengalis are the most literate cricketing public in India and so will not send up a clownish posture if they recognise pure cricketing talent beneath. Second, there may not be anyone there anyway. Most Indians I talked to at the one-day internationals declared they had neither the time nor the inclination to go to five- day Tests and usually trotted out the 'always draw' argument.

This is not a recent point of view. Before the Second World War, the Maharaja of Baroda was quoted as saying: 'Cricket is a game invented by the British who, not being a spiritual people, had to have some concept of eternity.'

(Photograph omitted)

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