Hick takes stick

Simon O'Hagan says axe may soon fall on England's struggling No 5 bat
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The Independent Online
No sooner do England appear to have solved the problem of No 3 in their batting order than another arises, at No 5. Halfway through their summer's activity - or, more pertinently, a quarter of the way towards the Ashes series next year - the decline in Graeme Hick's form is starting to look like the price the team have had to pay for the success of Nasser Hussain.

Batting experts could surely spend many hours trying to work out what it is in the psychological make-up of Hick that prevents him from scoring consist- ently well in Test cricket. His innings of 8, 1, 6 and 20 in the series against India again raise the question of whether this is a season - as in all but one since he first played for England in 1991 - when he might not make it to the end without being dropped from the Test team.

One cannot help feeling that after five years, Hick's position should have been resolved one way or another, but the fact is that against a Pakistani bowling attack that is going to ask rather more taxing questions than India's did, England can little afford any weak links in their batting.

In a television discussion last week, Geoff Boycott gained no marks for the lack of sympathy he showed towards Hick's plight, while rightly throwing in the name of Robin Smith as the man who could come back to replace him.

Smith's omission from the England one-day and Test parties named at the start of the Indian series had been widely anticipated, and passed with little comment. He was part of the old guard with which the winter's failures had been associated. He had to go.

In the light of Hick's continued troubles, Smith's disposal looks premature. Although Hick outshone him in South Africa - mainly on account of his 141 in his first Test innings of the tour - to end the series with an average of 48.83, Smith still averaged a far-from-disastrous 36.28. The problem was his lack of a big score - his highest was 66. In terms of career Test averages, Smith comes out well on top - 43.67 to Hick's 37.00.

But perhaps the most telling statistics of all are those relating to how Hick and Smith fared when the Pakistanis were last here, in 1992. In five innings - three of them ended by Waqar Younis - Hick scored 98 runs at 19.60. Smith, meanwhile, had eight innings, scoring 314 runs at 44.85.

There are other possibilities at No 5, of course, notably John Crawley. He is certainly due a change of luck. Having had to come home early from South Africa with a hamstring injury, he was named in the squad for the first Test against India, failed to make the final XI, and promptly went off and injured his other hamstring in a match against Essex. He returned to the Lancashire team last week and looked in excellent touch in yesterday's B&H final. Then there is Matthew Maynard, whose one-day performances for England were better than his scores suggested and were not unTest-like in the manner of their composition.

But at a time when England's progress is perhaps not quite as great as the team management would have us believe, proven performers against opposition as formidable as Pakistan have a certain appeal.

Smith - still only 32 - might not be an ex-England player for much longer.

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