James Lawton: Infantryman with a secret weapon rises from trenches to stars
Hoggard has defined the level of commitment required
Tuesday 05 December 2006
Matthew Hoggard would be a hero in any age of sport because he has the kind of bloody-minded character that takes him to the core of his business, bowling seamers hard and long in any conditions you care to put in front of him.
In the celebrity age, however, his deeds, which periodically sweep beyond those of men with bigger and perhaps less hard-won reputations, and rather more star appeal, seem to carry a special distinction.
From a man so unsung, his highest notes carry the classic resonance of a pure performer. Indeed, sometimes it seems his growth as a cricketer is in direct proportion to the degree of difficulty he faces.
Before this second Test of such huge importance to England's shaky hold on the Ashes, for example, Hoggard's potential to influence events was considered somewhat less than that of his captain, Andrew Flintoff, and even the dismayingly inconsistent Steve Harmison. But then, as an eruption of Australian virtuosity led by Michael Clarke and the re-emerging Adam Gilchrist threatened to ambush England's retrenchment after the first Test disaster in Brisbane, again it was the 29-year-old Yorkshireman who not only held the line but conjured the possibility, however slight, of victory. While this was happening Flintoff was restricting himself to just four overs, for "precautionary medical reasons," a team official said, and Harmison was being smashed for 11 runs in one over by the suddenly resurgent Gilchrist.
Hoggard just bowled on, adding three more wickets to the four he had claimed on the day when Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, was marching another step towards the mantle of the legendary Sir Don Bradman.
Ponting smashed his bat into the ground, despite scoring 142 majestic runs, when Hoggard got the better of him with a ball that cut away from his bat and into the hands of wicketkeeper Geraint Jones. It was a typical Hoggard thrust, a mysterious act of bowling brilliance that he swears he does not quite understand. He does it, he says, but do not ask him how. Ponting acknowledged the skill and the competitive nature of his assassin. "Hoggard is a guy who never lets up," he warned his team-mates.
Temperamentally, Hoggard is an infantryman, albeit the kind who might have palled up with Spike Milligan had he also been around join the fight against Hitler, but when it matters, when he senses that he has an edge, there is suddenly no limit to his swagger.
He doesn't milk the limelight. He turns it into natural energy. Hoggard is an unforced eccentric who before his latest gut-tearing, brilliant effort here pulled a series of funny faces as he mocked the industry of cricket analysis, especially that part of it which devotes so much time to explaining the dark art of "swinging" the ball, exploiting the conditions and the seam of the round piece of leather. Sometimes it seems like an aspect of nuclear science, but Hoggard declares, "Don't ask me how weather conditions affect the ball. I just don't know. I do it but I can't explain it. What I do is close my eyes and just bang it down."
No doubt, this is not quite right. Bowlers of any persuasion, are notoriously secretive about their technique - and their superstitions - and Hoggard is plainly not the kind of man to shed too much light on either his nature or his art.
Here this week it has been enough, certainly, to value again the force of his instinct to draw from himself every ounce of available talent and effort. In England's first innings this was the supreme achievement of Hoggard's team-mate Paul Collingwood and here from the bowling crease was the perfect balancing performance.
It meant that if England do take worries about their ability to bowl out Australia twice in any one Test match to the next one on another reportedly benign wicket in Perth, Hoggard has defined for all his team-mates the level of commitment that will be required if the job is to be done.
What he has produced here is still more evidence of an extraordinary will that surfaced earlier this year in Nagpur when, amid fears that years of extreme demands on himself had begun to take a toll, he claimed six Indian wickets for 57 runs. Five years ago that kind of potential to dominate a Test was established against South Africa when he took 12 wickets in a Test, and career-best figures of 7 for 61.
Here he faced conditions that might have been produced specifically to break the heart of a seam bowler - a reality underlined by the fact that the Australian bowling legend Glenn McGrath is now facing the first serious questions about his ability to stretch his magnificent career any further into his 38th year.
McGrath, who going into England's second innings had failed to claim a wicket, will probably survive a troubling performance and reappear in Perth. But, unquestionably, his selection will be based on an almost mythic reputation for producing something extraordinary when it matters most.
Hoggard has never enjoyed such luxury. He moves from one battlefront to another with a simple obligation. It is to delve into the mystery of his trade and keep coming with something that flies, often at the unlikeliest moments, beyond the professional norm.
In this department of supreme effort Hoggard had only one rival on the pivotal fourth day of this strange and laggardly but utterly absorbing Test match.
It was Michael Clarke, the former infant prodigy of Australian cricket. No one in this tough sports culture sought to disguise the nature of the 25-year-old Clarke's challenge, here and in the first Test in Brisbane. He was fighting for his place in Test cricket. At the Gabba he hit a beautifully composed half-century; on Monday he scored his third century at the highest level, a frequently exquisite piece of work which had started the night before when he was charged with the responsibility of guiding Australia closer to England's first-innings total of 551 after the sudden dismissals of Ponting and Michael Hussey.
Clarke, in his way, met his brief as completely as did Hoggard. He scored 124 and made it virtually impossible for his team to lose the advantage they had gained in Brisbane.
Later, he admitted that there was deep emotion when he finally reached his goal. He thought of several lost years, and the pain he had felt when he fell a few runs short of a century at Lord's in the Ashes series that went wrong, both for his country and for himself. He fought back the tears before he returned to his task - one that ended only when he received a beautifully delivered ball from Matthew Hoggard.
In that moment there was no winner or loser, just two brilliantly motivated cricketers reaching down for the best of themselves. Sport, celebrity-driven or otherwise, had rarely come better than this.
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