Hoggard joins England's 50 club

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The Independent Online

England fast bowlers have had the reputation of being injury-prone. It is an unwanted label but injury, sadly, comes with a job that is as physically demanding as any in sport.

Yet Matthew Hoggard and Stephen Harmison, England's opening pair, are the only two players who have been fit to play in every Test since the team's run of unparalleled success began in the West Indies in February 2004. During this period Harmison's wonderful bowling has grabbed many headlines but today in Mohali, Hoggard, one of the team's quiet achievers, will make his 50th Test appearance for England.

It is a landmark that should not go unnoticed. In an era when cricketers are retiring from the game with more than 100 Test caps, 50 does not sound a lot but Hoggard will become only the ninth England fast bowler to reach his half-century. "It obviously means a lot to me," Hoggard said yesterday. "Just being selected to play for England means a lot to me, so it is a big honour to get to 50. Hopefully, I can do something worthwhile in the match."

It is not the first occasion Hoggard has played in Mohali and he does not have particularly fond memories of his previous visit. In the winter of 2001-02, England toured India with a weakened side. The team performed admirably under Nasser Hussain's captaincy, with their only defeat, by the margin of 10 wickets, coming at this venue.

"My only memory of playing here four years ago was getting a massive volley from Nasser," he said. "I did not bowl bouncers at the Indian lower-order batsman who came out to bat when they needed three or four to win and I received verbal abuse for about five minutes. Nasser was frustrated at losing the Test and he took it out on me, but it was my third Test match and my first in India. I felt very small."

Hoggard has grown since Hussain's rocket and in Andrew Flintoff he will have a far more sympathetic leader. His rise to the top has had its disappointments and there are many - including, on occasions, England's selectors - who have doubted his ability to succeed at the highest level. But Hoggard is a competitor. He works hard and he gets on with his job and he now has 191 Test wickets to his name.

Michael Vaughan's relaxed and sympathetic style of captaincy has brought the best out of him. In 19 Tests under Hussain, Hoggard took 69 wickets at an average of 33.6. In 27 under Vaughan, he has taken 110 at 27.

In the first Test in Nagpur, England once again fielded a weakened side but Hoggard led the way, taking 7 for 86 on a horrible low, slow, grassless pitch, and England can expect a similar surface here. That he is able to compete in these conditions is testament to his durability and his ability to learn. It was felt by many that Hoggard would struggle to take wickets when the ball did not swing conventionally but his performance last week made a fool of those who doubted him.

Hoggard's accuracy prevented India's batsmen from scoring freely and he took his wickets through a combination of cleverly hidden slower balls and reverse-swing inswingers. These are skills rarely needed at Headingley, his home ground.

"My bowling in Nagpur was my best for England," he said. "I have never bowled so consistently before and, hopefully, I can reproduce that here. The most important thing I have learnt over the last four years is patience. When I was young my thinking was fragile and naïve and I used to go searching for wickets. But very rarely do you blast a batsman out or get a huge amount of help from the wicket, so you have to be patient and put the batsman under pressure. Hopefully then they will make a mistake."

This approach has made Hoggard the fourth-best bowler in the world, according to the official Test rankings. It is a position he enjoys but one he is struggling to come to terms with. "It is quite scary to be amongst the Warnes, the McGraths and the Muralitharans," he said. "Being up there will only hit me when I finish and I have become a cynical old bowler. Then I will be able to say, 'Look, back then I was fourth."

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