Hoggard happiest as the supporting act

Big two make headlines, but the third man will be key. Stephen Brenkley talks to Mr Dependable

It had been a lethal exhibition of accurate swing bowling in the Fourth Test at Johannesburg in January which brought him innings figures of 7 for 61 and a match return of 12 for 205, the best by an England bowler for 25 years. This had been such a phenomenal display that Hoggard was invited, nay commanded, to trot out his life story.

He obliged reluctantly, bridling only when too much bizarre detail was demanded, but it was obvious that he would have preferred to have been out on the moors walking the dogs. He would have preferred to have been anywhere else.

"That's all people talked about for two days afterwards, but then we had another Test to play so it was swept aside," he said, reflecting on it last week after six months. "Then we struggled to survive. Coming back home it has gone back to normal. I have just slunk away to the little place, and that's the way I like it.

"It was fantastic to have performed the way I did, but it's nice to get back to a form of reality, going back home, putting the feet up with the wife, and going to play for Yorkshire."

It is worth remembering that scene in Johannesburg, however, and the reason for it. When England's chances of regaining the Ashes are discussed, Hoggard never is. Two bowlers are deemed vital to the cause, and it is commonly held that Stephen Harmison and Andrew Flintoff have not only to come to the party, to use a favourite phrase of the coach, Duncan Fletcher, but also inflate the balloons, prepare the jelly and pop the streamers, or any thoughts of ever uncorking the bubbly can be forgotten.

There is an element of justification in this, but Australia will not be foolish enough to ignore or to underestimate Hoggard. He is one of only four players to have been ever-present in England's run of 18 Test matches in which they have won 14, lost only one and secured five consecutive series victories. Two of the others are Harmison and Flintoff (the fourth is Marcus Trescothick), permitting direct comparison.

Hoggard does not suffer. He has 78 wickets to Harmison's 80 and Flintoff's 67, and he has taken them at a better rate than either. In South Africa, when Harmison was out of form, Hoggard was regularly England's best bowler.

The remarkable feat at the Wanderers was reward for persistence, but he had already shown that he could do a job when the ball was not swinging. He would not necessarily prosper, but he would not fade into innocuousness either.

Harmison and Hoggard (strictly speaking the other way round, because Hoggard, almost perversely, always takes the first over) have now opened the bowling in 19 Tests for England. Hoggard knows that the partnership will never have faced the task that awaits in the 20th, which begins at Lord's against Australia on Thursday.

"The first game is going to be so impor-tant, and we know we need to hit the ground running," he says. "They are going to try to put one over on us, saying, 'Look, it's the same old England, the same old crack. You talk a good game, but as soon as the shit hits the fan you go down'. So we need to do a good job at Lord's and put them under pressure early doors."

Hoggard has a neat line in self-deprecation ("I bowled like a bag of spanners against Bangladesh"). Partly this is because he loathes the limelight, partly because it suits his personality to defer to others, partly it is Yorkshire bluntness. Self-deprecation is not brittleness.

The Yorkshireman in him ensures he stands up for himself. No member of the side ragged the former captain, Nasser Hussain, more than Hoggard.

He is wary of those he dislikes, and when he was first in the England side he acted the goat a bit too much for the liking of some. A defensive mechanism was interpreted as smart-alecry. It still shows occasionally.

Of the Fletcher-Hussain combo which effectively relaunched English cricket, he cannot speak highly enough. "They started the revival. I have got a lot of respect for Duncan as a coach, he gets into your mind. If you ask him a question he'll say, 'Leave it with me' and then come back two hours later with a theory. He has theories on everything.

"Nasser did wonders. He instilled a discipline, a belief, the right attitude. He got the right people and he stood up and had endless fights with the ECB for what he and Fletch thought was right. He was forever fighting the system. He took everything to heart."

Things are different under Vaughan, whom Hoggard has known since they were boys together at Yorkshire. "I only knew Michael as a player, and it was a learning curve having a new captain," he said. "I found I transferred pretty easily. Michael has put the fun back and made life easier, because there's no fear of failure. There's no grumpiness, he's very stable, and although we've always been team-mates rather than friends I have grown to like him more and more as the years have gone by."

Hoggard knows that the Australian batsmen will target him with a new ball in his hand. His plan is uncomplicated. "You have got to do what you have been doing to take wickets. I know that Matthew Hayden is going to come after me, but if I'm bowling the right lines and lengths then it's a bigger risk for him. It might be him or me, but you've just got to hold your nerve."

If Hoggard were to hold his nerve as well as his line sufficiently well, the notebooks and the cameras this time will be following him all the way back to Yorkshire.