Hollioake sure of his mission

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Derek Pringle meets Surrey's mildly eccentric vice-captain, whose leadership style has earned him many admirers and the responsibility of taking England A back to the land of his birth this winter
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Goading fast bowlers brimming with ire is not everyone's idea of a sensible pastime, particularly if you're feeling a little off colour. For Adam Hollioake, however, captain of England A, it is the only way to guarantee the right state of mind needed to combat the situation. Indeed he swears by it, at it and for it, and that's only when he needs waking up.

"I did it last year to Martin McCague who was bowling a really fast spell on one of the quickest pitches I've experienced at The Oval. For some reason I was half asleep when I first came in. So after a few whizzed past my nose I started having a go at him. He was a bit taken aback at first but couldn't resist the bait. Once he sledged back, my juices began to flow and I knew I was going to get through it."

The practice, seen as loutish and uncouth by many, in fact betrays the Australian in both of them: Hollioake's by birth, McCague's by upbringing - an important distinction apparently. Yet appearances can deceive, and although the latter looks a likely abuser, with his massive frame and pinched fast bowler's mouth, Hollioake's dark good looks and big doe-eyes give the impression of "good guy" innocence. It is a camera-friendly look that Surrey have been quick to capitalise upon, and Hollioake's smiling face fronts many of the club's glossy brochures.

Beyond this creaseless visage, however, there is a restlessness of spirit that recalls the great African explorers of the last century. He even has a raffish nickname - "Smokey", from "Holy Smoke". A rather subtle (at least as far as your average cricketer's imagination goes) approximation of his surname.

But whereas Livingstone and Speke had their minds set on discovering the nooks and crannies of the dark continent and spreading the gospel, Hollioake's journeys of discovery are far more personal and closer to home. A seeker of improvements, he is constantly monitoring how he responds to challenges like the one now facing him and his team in Australia, where England A commence their tour on Thursday.

"Initially, I was disappointed that I wasn't on the main tour. I mean it's everyone's aim to play Test cricket. But being asked to captain the A tour was the next best thing that could have happened and I'll certainly be happy if it does for me what it did for Nasser Hussain.

"In fact the quality of player will probably be greater than most that the main England team will come up against and that's satisfying. I think we'll all come back a lot stronger. The cricket will be hard and, with no representative match to peak for, we'll have to reach maximum motivation early on and stay there. The Aussies play the game with real intensity that disappears when you play it too often. But that's something we'll have to guard against."

Winning regularly has become something of a distant dream for England teams in Australia. Which makes Mike Gatting - a last-minute replacement for Graham Gooch and the last England captain to have won the Ashes in or out of Australia - an ideal appointment. Mind you, the role of wet nurse is not easy to envisage and an hour spent with Hollioake leaves you in no doubt that here is a captain who knows his own mind.

Responsibility is, he insists - even at the age of 25 - something he gulps down in great dollops, never tiring of its constant demands. In fact his game and his batting average (six years ago he used to bat at No 9 in the second team) have both flourished since he became vice-captain of Surrey two seasons ago, the main improvements coming against spin, which he no longer tries to clout into the ether.

But while his forthright style of leadership at Surrey - in Alec Stewart's absence - occasionally gets lampooned by team-mates, its impact has obviously not gone unnoticed by those with clout, who lurk among the gin-swillers in committee rooms around the country.

"I've always liked to get out there and be in the thick of the battle. If I'm the leader it's even better because I know I've got to set an example. I'm someone who needs pressure and, if you look back at my record, I've tended to score my runs at important times. It's only last season [1,521 runs at an average of 69] that I've tended to cash in when it hasn't always counted."

An Australian by birth, but schooled at spiffy St George's Weybridge, in Surrey's stockbroker belt, he makes no apologies for having what he calls "aggressive Aussie blood and habits".

"That's the difference between the two countries. In Oz, you're brought up to be very competitive, which is not always the case in England. Society seems to discourage it by deeming competition as unattractive. Many feel it is not the way to go. In Australia, it is the only way to go."

It is his antipodean bloodline that makes it nigh on impossible for Hollioake to wield a dead bat on or off the field. He believes in being candid and feels that as captain even unpopular decisions - like telling someone they're about to be dropped - need not interfere with the social side of the relationship.

"I'm still one of the boys and not someone who places himself apart or above the rest of the side. Distancing yourself is not my way of earning respect as captain. The best way to stay popular with players is to be honest with them. If they know that, then when you drop them, they'll know it's for the reasons you're telling them and not something else. It's dishonesty that allows things to niggle away in a dressing-room."

He is not big on excuses either, and woe betide those who adopt the usual county pro get-out by blaming personal failure on extraneous matters.

"Normally, I'll get the guys in to practise the day before a match. After we've had nets I'll say to them: `Look, if you've got any excuses about the changing-rooms, the umpires or the pitch, make them now. Because I don't want to hear about it during the game.'

"I've sat in too many dressing-rooms in the past with people moaning about why they haven't done well. Whingeing about the umpires, etc, just gives you a reason for not winning. You never lose a game of cricket apart from the fact that you're not good enough on the day. If we go down, it's because we won't have played well enough."

Leadership is, he insists, not something he has either sought or craved and, before his responsibilities at Surrey, the only place he ever got to lead people was up the garden path. "The biggest challenge of this tour is how quickly I can get to know my players and find out the best ways of working with them. It's easy to captain Surrey as everyone knows each other. But a lot of the guys on this tour only know me as this lunatic opponent who comes charging down the pitch swearing at them, with his eyes on stalks. They are bound to have some reservations about me."

To hasten the process, and after consultations with both Gatting and the England coach David Lloyd, he handed all his players a questionnaire to fill in between meals and movies on the plane. The topics most likely to be broached being (subject to the coach's input): When do you most like to bat/bowl? Do you prefer the new or old ball? Muesli or fry-up for breakfast? Pasta or pot roast for lunch?

Valiantly, and while the majority of his side head for Sydney's topless beaches after practice, Hollioake plans to spend the coming week going through each questionnaire with the player concerned. He realises that, as captain, he has to compromise his own time and space at the expense of the team's.

He also admits to getting really wound up over the Aussies' low opinion of English cricket, and like many players, feels it is wholly unjustified.

"It really pisses me off. I think it is just psychological warfare and that they are not as superior as they make out. Sure they have got some good players but so have we, and as far as I'm concerned there is no one that we should be unduly worried about." Brave words considering Shane Warne is on the mend and looking for a few Pommie scalps to whet his appetite before the Ashes start next summer.

As well as being brought up in Melbourne, Hollioake has spent several winters playing grade cricket for North Perth. It is a baptism few in search of an easy life would opt for and one that got completely out of control when he was accused of ball tampering in the local papers.

"Yeah, after that I got a verbal volley every minute of every game. In the end I became immune to it. They do tend to overdo it a bit though and I remember one bloke in my own team body-checking Damien Martyn [the Western Australia captain] and completely flattening him as he went for a run."

So what advice will he be giving to those who've never experienced the quaint rituals of okker chic?

"I will tell the lads not to listen to any of the crap talked and to draw strength from the fact that they are abusing you. Use it to get bigger. It's just an insecurity of theirs that comes to the surface when they can't get the better of you.

"In any case, I'm always looking for things to test myself against. To date this will be the ultimate and, as long as we believe we can win, I'm certain that we can."