September 20, 2013

The Hoggy I knew

For all his achievements on the cricket field, it's Matthew Hoggard's character that leaves the lasting impression

Matthew Hoggard: someone you'd happily share a drink with © Getty Images

Whenever a sportsman retires it tends to be the same few career highlights that are mentioned to sum up the impact they made. The same handful of achievements mixed in with an occasional high-profile failure.

When Matthew Hoggard announced his retirement last week it was fairly obvious where media obituaries of his career would concentrate: the Test hat-trick in Bridgetown, his 12 for 205 in Johannesburg, that match-winning cover drive at Trent Bridge, and perhaps a mention of one of the most incisive contributions to political debate ever made by a sportsman: the time he called Tony Blair a knob.

Fair enough. That's a pretty good highlights package of Hoggard's career. But often when we remember a player it isn't just for the achievements that have captured back-page headlines. It can be a particular moment or a specific match away from the glare of publicity that sums up why we like them.

Whenever I think of Matthew Hoggard I remember a County Championship game he played at Hove in 2009; the match where he took his other first-class hat-trick. Perhaps it helps that Hove is a favourite ground of mine. The pitch generally produces good cricket, the locals are knowledgeable and friendly, and there's a pub just outside the gates. I tend to think of all my visits there as memorable.

On this occasion, four seasons ago, Hoggard's career with England was already over and his time with Yorkshire was also coming to an end. But despite being in the middle of contract negotiations he seemed to be his usual eccentric self.

Perhaps that eccentricity wasn't always apparent in televised internationals with large noisy crowds and coverage that concentrates on what's happening on the pitch. But in the more sedate confines of a domestic game it's hard to avoid the constant, and not entirely accurate, assertions during run-out practice that "I never miss on a Thursday!" Or the steady stream of perpetually changing, increasingly nonsensical, improvised nicknames shouted out in encouragement to a team-mate during a crucial bowling spell. Watching Hoggard in the field at close quarters, it's hard to work out if he's the best or worst person you could ever share a dressing room with. Perhaps it's a good thing that his England career never coincided with Graeme Swann's.

The match itself was one of those strange games that seem to be heading to an inevitable draw before exploding to life amid an avalanche of wickets on the final day. In this case, 998 runs were scored and just 22 wickets taken during the first three days, before the remaining 18 fell on the fourth.

Hoggard's incisive contribution came during a frantic final session of play when Yorkshire bowled Sussex out for 83 to win the game. It was the quintessential swing bowler's hat-trick: caught behind, clean-bowled, then another edge taken at second slip. But it was his celebration that remains in my memory. It wasn't the arms apart, come-worship-me stance of a Freddie Flintoff. Hoggard is one of those who celebrate by running around like a seven-year-old who has had too much sugar. That's no criticism; I was doing a similar thing in the stands.

For all the dour seriousness that sportsmen can sometimes exhibit - Michael Vaughan once called Hoggard the grumpiest player he had ever played with - it's those moments of elation that reveal character and endear players to public. Those bizarre call-outs to team-mates, signs of individuality that distance a player from the modern trend of insipid media-trained blandness.

"He's just a bit silly. He rings you up and leaves daft messages and silly noises on your phone. It's just madness. He's a good lad, though." -- Ashley Giles

"He gives you it straight. If he thinks you're a pillock, he'll tell you. He won't ask for anything that he wouldn't do himself, that's the way he is. Hoggy is Hoggy." -- Former Yorkshire captain David Byas

Those two quotes serve as the opening to Hoggard's idiosyncratic autobiography, Hoggy: Welcome to My World. They give the impression of a straight-talking, hard-working man, who at times is just a little bit daft. That's certainly the impression I've been left with after watching Hoggard play for the last 15 years or so.

For all the achievements he's made in the game - the 248 Test wickets, the Man-of-the-Match performances, the Ashes victories - it's Hoggard's character that I'll remember most. The humour, the selfless hard work, the eccentricity, the feeling that here was a man who spent his media training looking out of the window; someone you'd happily share a drink with.

I'd say that's a pretty good epitaph to a sporting career.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses