Hick right at heart of the matter

Jon Culley finds the enigmatic England man in determined mood
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The Independent Online
The role of sports psychologist is not one into which an old school player of Ray Illingworth's background slips naturally, but the hard-nosed supremo of English cricket is doing his best to unravel the complex strands of Graeme Hick's character.

Dropped from the fourth Test but restored as a contender for tomorrow's fifth because of the injuries to Alec Stewart and Robin Smith, Hick rejoined his England team-mates at Trent Bridge yesterday intent on meeting Illingworth for what a football manager would recognise as "clear-the-air talks".

He was guaranteed to be given blunt, unambiguous answers on where he stands in Illingworth's overview, but would be encountering a man aware of the need to coax and cajole, much as his instinct might be to say "shape up, or get out".

The dilemma for the England manager and selectors' chairman is that for all the doubts about Hick's temperament as a Test player, even about the strength of his commitment, he has a talent that cannot be cast aside.

Hick is not certain to play as England seek to take a 3-2 series lead. His experience will be weighed against the form of Alan Wells. If during yesterday's meeting he managed to allay one or two of Illingworth's fears, however, he will have done himself no harm.

"I don't think anyone has more ability than Hicky," Illingworth said before they met. "But he has played 50 Test matches now and it is time for him to be a leading light, a major player. If selected, we would be looking to him to play the dominant role in Robin Smith's mantle."

Smith scores heavily with Illingworth for courage and defiance, as does anyone who plays, like, say, Dominic Cork, with the heart of a lion. Hick, however, is notoriously undemonstrative, and while Illingworth is willing to forgive shyness he makes it clear that a player's commitment should be visible.

"Everyone wants to do well: that's human nature," he said. "But they have got to want to do their best for England, to die for England. We've got to get that across to them and they've got to get that back across to us."

Whether Hick can do so is one area in which Illingworth needs convincing. Yesterday, the Worcestershire batsman discussed his uncertain position with rare frankness. But the message he put across was that if he has strong feelings about playing for England, they do not burn nearly as fiercely as his bitterness towards his critics.

He has self-belief, he said. "If I had to listen to all the stuff that was written [about me] I don't think I would be playing now, if I did not believe I was a good player."

There was more along similar lines. And he was not, it seems, about merely to listen to the manager's advice.

"When I see Illy, I will say what I want to say and I'm sure he will," he said. "There is something I'd like to say and he says he always wants it straight."

Quite what he wanted to get off his chest he would not divulge but he gave enough hints, notably when alluding to why he felt at upset at being dropped.

"My first couple of years in Test cricket were disappointing, which I accept, but over the last 18 months I don't think I have been that bad. In this series we have played on some pretty difficult wickets but I felt I batted reasonably well at Lord's in the second innings.

"If you come to the conclusion that the decision to drop you was right then you understand it; if you don't you can find it very hard to work out for yourself."

Illingworth had said that "if he reacts the right way then being dropped might do him good." Last night he was weighing up whether this was the right way.