Profile: The mirage of English cricket - Graham Hick

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE over a year ago many people had a vision akin to Nebuchadnezzar's dream. They saw a great image, made of gold and silver, and wonderful to behold, only, unlike the one which appeared to the King of Babylon, this had a name: Graeme Hick.

Immense was the expectation of Hick at the start of the 1991 season. He had scored 57 first- class hundreds, and was not 25 years old. He had made the highest score in England this century, his 405 not out against Somerset; and only Donald Bradman had turned out the hundreds at a better rate than Hick's one in every five innings. It is no exaggeration to say that some felt the salvation of English cricket to be at hand, once the giant from Zimbabwe had qualified to represent his adopted country.

Press opinion, for once, fairly reflected popular expectation. 'He (Hick) is now in a position to dominate the world of cricket well into the next century and is carrying the same torch that the likes of Bradman and Richards have held before him,' Today declared, adding that in the Worcestershire dressing-room Ian Botham had given Hick the nickname 'God'. 'He is the supreme artist,' Simon Hughes wrote in the Independent, for cricketers themselves no less believed that momentous happenings were in store. Phil Neale, Hick's captain at Worcester, was quoted in the Daily Mail: 'He plays his cricket like Liverpool play football, so technically correct it's a bit like a machine.'

In the previous winter of 1990-91 Hick had played for Queensland, and even Australians were scarcely less effusive. 'He'll probably play Test cricket for years to come,' Craig McDermott told the Guardian, who also quoted another Australian Test cricketer, Peter Taylor, as saying of Hick: 'He is a great player.'

These prophecies have not come true. Hick has scored 75 Test runs against West Indies at an average of 10.71; 134 runs against New Zealand at 26.80; and 98 runs against Pakistan at 19.60. In 11 Tests so far he has an overall average of 18. The great and brilliant image, both in Babylon and contemporary England, has been found to have feet of clay.

There are three principal reasons for this failure. And they can be identified, just as Daniel (the prophet, not Wayne) was eventually able to analyse Nebuchadnezzar's dream.

THE first is that Hick has not had his share of luck in Test cricket, both in his initial opponents, West Indies, and in a couple of umpiring decisions in New Zealand. These and other setbacks have always been accepted with old-fashioned grace, for the tobacco farmer's son is a man of solid virtue, of elemental decency.

The second is technical. Like most tall batsmen, Hick has been conditioned to move on to his front foot and to drive. On the slow pitches of Zimbabwe where he grew up, then of England, where he has lived since 1983, he has been able to score runs by the hundreds, and thousands. But the best Test cricket is not a front- foot game.

In addition to this predilection, Hick has always had a technical weakness, one allowed to remain dormant by most county bowlers but spotlit in Test cricket. When confronted with a short fast ball, his back foot has tended to remain rooted to the spot, as if made of clay, particularly under stress as in a Test match. Therefore he has not moved his head and eyes towards the line of balls around off-stump: he pushes his bat at them and is liable to present a catch to slip or gully. Or if the ball is of full length, he still does not move his back foot into line, particularly when under stress, and is bowled by Waqar Younis's yorker.

After 1985, when he became a regular for Worcestershire, what Hick needed in his off- seasons was a higher standard to prepare him for Test level. But all he got was more of the same during two winters in New Zealand, where again he was Gulliver among Lilliputians (he hit 10 hundreds in 30 first-class innings there). He should have gone to Australia, when still young enough to modify his technique, and for 1989-90 he was fixed up with New South Wales; but the deal fell through because his agent, it is said, wanted too large a cut.

When he went to Queensland the following winter, the pressure was on him as it would not have been in NSW (Queensland are desperate to win the Sheffield Shield, never having done so). Brisbane has bouncy pitches too, whereas he could have found his feet on the slow turners of Sydney. Whether coincidence or not, only when Australia's best bowlers went on tour to the West Indies did Hick start making centuries.

Nevertheless, in spite of this unresolved shortcoming in technique, Hick could have made more Test runs than he has. In 1988 at Worcester, among familiar faces and friends, he faced a West Indian attack of Patterson, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop, and scored 172 (this made him the second batsman since the war to reach 1,000 runs by the end of May). In 1991, at Worcester again, when Waqar was fitter and faster than he is now, and playing for Surrey, Hick scored 145; then, in the second innings, when Waqar bowled throughout from one end, 85. Some critics talk about 'a ceiling of ability', above which the bowling becomes too quick for an individual to handle, but anyone who saw these three innings would say Hick has it in him to succeed in Test cricket as a whole, if not in every match against West Indies.

ENGLAND'S TEST team is being organised on ever less haphazard, ever more scientific lines. The players assemble at Lilleshall in winter, have their heart-rates monitored, receive advice from the most experienced coaches. But in the words of a current member of the team: 'All this stuff about diet and technique is a load of bollocks really. What matters in Test cricket is what goes on in your head.' And in this regard England's set-up lags in the Victorian era, as up to date as Fred Trueman saying over and over: 'Why this young man Hick can't make runs at Test level, I just cannot understand.'

Hick is not the only England player of late to have had a psychological problem, in respect to his cricket that is (in his private life he appears contented: he got married last autumn and his first child is expected in September). Robin Smith became over-anxious in Australia in 1990-91; Keith Medlycott became so nervous on tour he was unable to bowl.

Hick's experience has been closely parallelled by Neil Fairbrother, a leading county batsman with a Test average of eight. Both have found that in one-day internationals there is no close field to catch the tentative edge when they start their innings, but just as important there is little time for anxiety as they are swept along by the pace of events. Both have played match- winning one-day innings for England (the stand of 213 between Hick and Fairbrother against West Indies at Lord's last year remains the highest for any wicket in internationals in England). In Test cricket they have frozen.

If England's management were to take an interest in the advances made by sports psychology, they would find that Hick's condition - his inability to play his 'natural game' in a Test match - is no longer incurable. When nervous tension or stress overcame Peter Alliss, it ended his golf career; the latter-day Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer have been able to change and carry on.

In Test cricket so far Hick could well have been exemplifying 'catastrophe theory', according to Dr Ian Cockerell of the Sports Science department of Birmingham University. Arousal, or being psyched up, is good preparation; over-arousal leads to panic, and rapidly diminishing effectiveness, or failure. This results in a negative mental state, and self-doubt, wherein the will to win is replaced by fears of failing. When all this leads to another low score, there is even more over-arousal before the next innings, and so on. The decision not to play Hick against Sri Lanka at Lord's last summer, and give him the most favourable circumstances in which to break this cycle, was one which betrayed a culpable lack of understanding.

It is not as if Hick is short of self-esteem, or without the ability to cope with a stressful situation. Look at him in the field during a Test match, when he is at second slip: calm to the point of bland, focused as he nibbles at his nails; at home, in control. In his 11 Tests he has taken 22 catches, a rate never achieved by any other fielder in Test history. Again, when bowling his off-breaks in New Zealand last winter, he delivered 69 overs in one innings, for 126 runs and four wickets, when England could well have lost if Hick had not performed.

Hick's problem is that he is not approaching a Test innings as he would an innings for Worcestershire. In a different environment, and in new places in the batting order, his mental preparation has become different too. 'What he has to do is to work out what he does before and during a successful county innings, and translate that behaviour into Test cricket,' Dr Cockerell says. 'Batsmen and coaches always analyse their innings, but only technically, never mentally.'

At any one time only 20 people in the world can claim to be successful Test batsmen. In England, where the media scrutiny is uniquely intense, to become one is harder still: in the last 10 years only Robin Smith has come in and established himself fully, although Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton are in the process of doing so. Hick, moreover, has had to labour under those expectations of being a second Bradman or Richards: in other words, he has had to face extraordinary stress.

Getting to the heart of the matter is not simple, according to Dr Cockerell, but the solution usually is. It lies within the man himself, provided he is given the opportunity to talk his problem through with someone who understands. Given England's set-up, this may happen, or it may not.

(Photograph omitted)