There are a few players with England on this tour of Australia who are at the start of it all. A wonderful adventure is ahead. They know what is expected of them but perhaps not quite what to expect.
Test cricket is a hard and unyielding business. The scrutiny is relentless, the need to keep on proving yourself unending. All this the likes of Gary Ballance, Ben Stokes, Boyd Rankin and Michael Carberry may soon discover.
In the dressing room next to England’s this week at the Blundstone Arena, which was once the charming Bellerive Oval before the sponsors and the bulldozers moved in, is a man who can tell them all a thing or two about expectation all right. After all these years it is still not possible to speak to Graeme Hick without thinking what might have been.
To the astonishment of some and perhaps to the mild surprise even of himself, a few weeks ago Hick became the high-performance batting coach of Australia’s centre of excellence in Brisbane. In short, his job is to bring on the next generation of the country’s elite batsmen.
It is a post for which his high-level coaching qualifications and his personal experience may find him perfectly suited. A quarter of a century ago, Hick was the next big thing, a champion batsman who would become one of the all-time greats. From the international start, things never quite worked out.
“There’s an element of disappointment in that,” he said as he sat and watched Australia A, part of his new brief, during what turned out to be a long, wicketless first day in the field against England. “From having had a bad start I always felt I was chasing the game in terms of where I wanted to be. I wanted to end up being a great player and to do that I know I had to perform better. I think if I was able to have relaxed in that arena a bit more... We’re all different in character and at times I certainly felt under a lot of pressure.”
A man who scored 136 first-class centuries, scored 41,112 first-class runs, putting him 15th on the all-time list, and another 22,059 in one-day matches, cannot be said to have had an undistinguished career. But with Hick the feeling will for ever exist that there were heights unreached.
He played 65 Test matches, scored six hundreds, averaged 31.32, perfectly adequate figures, but not what was anticipated for him when he was selected for England in 1991.
The sense of imminent magnificence when Hick arrived on the international scene in 1991 should never be underestimated. He had carried all before him as he spent seven years qualifying to play for England after leaving his native Zimbabwe to play professionally. The zenith had been reached three years earlier when he scored a quadruple century for his adopted Worcestershire at Taunton.
He was made for Test cricket. Except it turned out he wasn’t. Not quite. He was not a failure, of course, but he was not outrageously successful as was easily predicted. There is a detectable longing in his voice even now, slight perhaps but undoubtedly existing.
“The summer that I started playing for England, I didn’t start that season well in county cricket and I didn’t feel 100 per cent,” he said. “With hindsight that might have been all the extra stuff that goes on around international cricket and what was coming.
“When I started playing, the media and the criticism I received certainly affected me. I always enjoyed my cricket, I was passionate about just playing, I was brought up in a disciplined environment, taught to enjoy my cricket but compete.
“Some of it was constructive, some of it was fair but other times I thought that wasn’t totally necessary. I was a little bit sensitive to it and in a way that made me tighten up and put me under more pressure because I would try and perform so I didn’t have to read the criticism. It was a vicious circle but that’s what international sport is about. It’s the same for everyone and if you’re playing international cricket it’s about dealing with all that as much as anything else.”
Five years have passed since Hick played his last professional innings, two since he and his family made the life-changing decision to emigrate. If they left in search of a better life, Hick did not know what lay in store. There was no job, there were no promises.
It was not a spur-of-the-moment flight. The initial prompt had come from his children when Hick played in a beach cricket circus in Australia in 2004 and 2005. They wanted to know why the family did not live in Australia. The feeling never diminished.
Living on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Hick began coaching occasionally at the Academy in Brisbane. He found that he liked coaching, of which he had not done much, and when the high-performance post became vacant – a knock-on effect of Darren Lehmann’s elevation to coaching the Test side – he was invited to do the job.
And now here we are in this globalised world with a man who played 10 Ashes Tests for England, seven of them in Australia, coaching their players. He seems relaxed, content and looking forward hugely to what lies ahead. He knows that his experiences can help him forge the way for others.
“I have loved my career and although it sounds a bit of a cliché I’m interested in giving that bit back,” he said. “A lot of people helped me and I do feel that through the ups and downs of my career I have a lot to offer in terms of someone’s development off the field and what they will face as much as someone’s development on the field.
“You have got to go out and bat with a clear mind and be free to express yourself. Through my pitfalls or downfall or whatever you want to call it, I do feel I have got a lot to offer the young kids.”
He has become a good judge of technique – he always used to admire Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar but then, as he says, he often had plenty of time to do so from second slip – but believes that the playing of a long innings is as much mindset as method. “I might be a little bit old-school, but if you want to bat all day and you have a desire to do it then you will get your head round it and leave a few balls,” he said.
Hick insisted that there are no regrets, though perhaps there are occasionally a few thoughts of how it might have turned out differently for him. There is just the feeling that he was not treated quite as he might have been, that somehow he was blamed for not living up to the hype.
“Both parties could have dealt with it better,” he said. “I could have dealt with it better and certain people that I worked with could have been more supportive. You have got to be pretty thick-skinned. We’re all different and that’s what make the great players stand out because they’re able to deal with all that. Whatever sport you’re in, it comes in one form or another.”
It still seemed odd to be talking to him at Hobart in the gold and green of Australia. And will there be divided loyalties this winter when the Ashes start? “Just doing my job,” he said.