Moment of truth for Hick

'It took a while for me to get my confidence back, not only on the cricket field but to walk around and recover my self-esteem'; Simon O'Hagan hears a player open up about his career on the eve of an anniversary
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Graeme Hick thinks of it as "a really strange ride", and even given some strong competition, few England cricketers have so confounded us with the vagaries of their form as has the batsman who it was once thought would find scoring Test hundreds about as taxing as putting on his pads. It is only now, five years after he first played for his adopted country, that Hick can regard himself as established in the England side, and the difficult journey he has made to get to this position has clearly left its mark on a personality which has at times seemed almost impenetrable.

That, though, according to Hick, was all part of the problem. "For a while I think I tried to be someone I wasn't," he said last week while thawing out in the Leicester pavilion after a freezing day in the field for Worcestershire. "I was trying to keep everyone happy, and I think I've learnt now, well this is me. A lot of people think I'm a quiet sort of person, a bit dour even, but I have a laugh with my team-mates. If there's any fun going on, I'm always there. So in that sense I don't think I give a true idea of my character when I'm out in the middle. I'm definitely misjudged a bit. I guess it takes a long time for me to get close to people until I feel in a safe environment."

It was on 23 May 1991 - Hick's 25th birthday - that he first represented England, in a one-day international against West Indies. And it will be on 23 May 1996 - his 30th birthday - that he will seek to take his England career a stage further when the first of the Texaco Trophy one-day matches takes place against India at The Oval on Thursday. How did he assess his overall performance in that time? "Pretty mixed," he said. "It took a while to settle in, a couple of years. But I think I've gradually got stronger. I feel a lot more confident and secure now."

That it would turn out to be such a tortured process was unthinkable when Hick, born and brought up in Zimbabwe, finally completed his seven- year residential qualification period for England after making county cricket look ridiculously easy. A string of youngest-ever batting records had fallen to him. In 1983, aged 17, he became the youngest player to take part in a World Cup; in 1986, aged 20, he became the youngest player to score 2,000 runs in an English season; in 1990, aged 24, he became the youngest player to score 50 first-class centuries, one of them the 405 not out for Worcestershire against Somerset in 1988 that bestowed on him the mark of true greatness.

But as soon as he walked out for an England team that had been almost counting the days to his availability, this huge man seemed to shrink. He went 23 innings before making his first fifty, 32 before making his first hundred. It wasn't until the two series of 1994, against New Zealand and South Africa, that he got through an English summer without being dropped.

"I don't think I was mentally strong enough," Hick said. "Whether it was the pressure of expectation I don't know. But it knocked me back a bit being dropped for the first time. I'd never been dropped in any form of cricket." Then there was the criticism he started to receive. "Obviously, it was very new to me, very strange, and very hard at times. There were some pretty hurtful things said. But these are the things you have to come to terms with in international sport. It took a while for me to get my confidence back, not only on the cricket field, but just to walk around and recover my self-esteem generally."

At one of his lowest points, during 1993, Hick sought help from a psychologist, someone he prefers not to name. "It was not much to do with cricket. It was more reminding me what my values were, putting everything in order in my life. It might just have been the fact that the person I spoke to, a complete stranger at first, seemed really interested in me and in my doing well at a time when I got the feeling everyone was wanting me not to do well." Hick remains a fascinated consumer of mental self-help literature.

Matters might have been made easier for him had he felt he was being treated by the selectors the way he would have wished. "I've always felt that if you've had a run of bad performances then no one deserves a place in any side, and I need to keep scoring runs now. At the same time you do look for a bit of security and continuity from the establishment. Not to be granted anything, but I think for a lot of people who've come in and out of the England side - not just myself - they would have preferred a bit more confidence shown in them, and a bit more communication."

It takes a lot to rile Hick - he's still very much a quiet, country boy at heart - but when he turned up at Old Trafford for the fourth Test against West Indies last summer and did not know he wouldn't be playing until the morning of the match, a dignified silence was more than even he could muster. He had it out with Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors. It is not an argument Hick wishes to reopen now, but the point to emphasise is that it was not so much being left out that upset him as the way it was done.

For Illingworth, the problem seemed to be one of commitment. "Only Graeme himself really knows whether he wants to do better for himself or for the team," he said at the time, a remark which was hard to separate from the rumbling issue of whether non-native Englishmen represented the nation with as much as ardour as those born here. "The nationality side of it is something I'll always carry," Hick said. "Some people don't like it and some don't mind. But as far as I'm concerned I'm here to play cricket, my life is here, so I'm as committed as anybody else."

Whatever the reason, when Hick did get back into the team for the next Test he produced the goods as never before. In his next five innings - in the fifth and sixth Tests against West Indies and the first against South Africa on England's winter tour, he scored 118 not out, 7, 96, 51 not out and 141. True, he was unable to sustain that level, but the malaise that crept up on England as they floundered through the latter part of the South Africa tour and then the World Cup was general. What went wrong?

"Everyone who was on the tour will have their own opinion, and it's not necessarily something I would want to go public on. Otherwise it could turn into a finger-pointing session very quickly. We all got on well, but it's not easy when results aren't going for you. Other sides were on top of their game, and we weren't really performing as a team. Whether our preparations were right or wrong, those are decisions made by other people."

Hick is looking ahead now. Married with a three-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son, he reckons he has got another five or six years of international cricket left in him. "I'd like to be able to walk away knowing I've been pretty successful." he said.

As for the India series: "It won't be as easy as some people say. They've got a lot of talented players, and we've got a lot who'll want to do well after the winter." Does Hick feel he has anything left to prove? "To myself more than anyone else. I'm my own harshest critic." English cricket will be hoping he won't have cause to be too hard on himself.

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