Hick's new formula for glory

Derek Pringle in Peshawar finds an in-form tourist eager to improve
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The Independent Online
IT IS no great secret that England's batting and fielding have been in disarray since their three-day debacle in Cape Town, where they lost both Test and series to South Africa. Cricket-weary and jaded by travel, most of the batsmen have been unable to exude a commanding presence at the crease, giving opposition bowlers little cause for doubt. And almost none have found the consistency required to ensure large enough totals.

None that is, apart from Graeme Hick, who while perhaps lacking the consistency of the giants like Brian Lara and Viv Richards is now a batsman to be feared by bowlers of all paces and persuasions. This is particularly apparent in one-day cricket where the ball cannot be bowled at the head - though there is evidence that Hick has partly conquered that old weakness - a weapon previously used with impunity against him at Test level, because of the frequency of its success.

However, against New Zealand in Ahmedabad he was in his element, an unrestrained Gulliver against the Lilliputians. Accurate, yet unchallenging bowling on a slow pitch has never brought Hick to the point of crisis, and hampered by an injury severe enough to require a runner (his skipper), he eased his way to 85 before being run out.

Hick averages around 40 in one-day internationals. Already an acknowledged master of the genre, he is still improving and has found new areas to score his runs, which he attributes to a change in stance and regular work-outs with a skipping rope.

"It was something Duncan Fletcher, my old Zimbabwe captain, first mentioned to me a year or so back," he said. "He thought I was so upright in my stance that my knees looked locked every time I moved my feet. I must admit I had been feeling immobile, so I tried getting lower by bending my knees and bringing my bat down. I also began to do a lot of skipping to try and become quicker on my feet and to get the legs moving better."

Such changes are often hard to make, more so in Hick's case, because every stage of his career, bar Tests, had been bathed in phenomenal success. He could easily have been stubborn and glib, pointing out that companies like Coca-Cola don't bother to change a successful formula, so why should he. But he didn't and to his credit the one blot on an otherwise sparkling career drove him to make alterations.

"It felt a little strange at first, though I'd often stood with my bat grounded when having knock-ups on the outfield at Worcester. The difficult bit was to find a rhythm between synchronising my bat and feet movements. That took a bit of time but it was worth it and I feel I'm able to play the ball into new areas, particularly on the leg-side. With the bat not coming down from such a high position, I feel I'm able to manoeuvre it far later than I used to, which helps you find important gaps especially in one-day cricket.

"I normally go out to bat with an open mind, see where they bowl and take what comes. But over here I'm quite prepared to take a chance and hit spinners over the top in order to get the men back and open up gaps. Then I'll look to pick up singles by hitting the ball back straight down the ground. Only if that proves difficult will I resort to the sweep shot, which is riskier."

The last time Hick found himself in this part of the world, England were busy being annihilated 3-0 by a resurgent India. It was a wretched tour, though Hick had become progressively assured, finishing with a commanding 178 in the final Test in Bombay. It was an innings hailed as the first of many perceived "arrivals" (though he has averaged 45 in Test matches since) at international level, and it is still his highest Test score.

There is no doubt he likes the sub-continent's pitches but what of the place itself? "I found it really interesting," he said with a grin, as if expecting not to be believed. "It's so different to anywhere in the world I've been. Obviously there are some sights you wouldn't like to see, but it has its attractions."

"I even like curry," he added, "though not twice a day. I've normally got a pretty strong constitution when it comes to food, but even I've brought some tins of soup and tuna with me, in order to have a change. Actually, I've always enjoyed the travelling side of touring."

While some struggle to cope with cultural and culinary differences, Hick is having to contend with the extra burdens of being England's only in-form batsman, and an injured one at that. "The injury is a soft-tissue one just above the knee, which to my mind has been brought on by the cramped travelling conditions on planes and buses, which are not made for six- footers like me," he said.

"I don't feel any extra pressure at all, especially at the start of an innings. At the moment I'm feeling really confident as I go out to bat. The pressure only comes when you realise you're the one in and you have to stay there in order to win the game." Just such a situation arose during the defeat by New Zealand game last week and Hick felt England would have won had he and Neil Fairbrother remained together for another 10 overs.

He is an important cog in the bowling attack as well, offering his captain neat off-spinners with a minimum of fuss. "I enjoy bowling, but I must admit I don't get a lot of excitement from practising off-spin in the nets, so I'm not about to turn it into an art. I'd have to put too much time into that."

His all-round contributions extend to the art of fielding, whether it be his bucket hands at slip or his rocket arm from the deep. After Graham Thorpe's probable match-costing double spill at slip against New Zealand last week, many were asking why Hick - who not only has a better record there but a greater span of reach - was not in that position instead? When questioned about this, Hick shrugged and said: "I just go to gully." As the man in form, perhaps he should be given licence to go where he chooses.