The enigmatic Mr Hick
Brian Lara's quadruple-century against England last month may have been the definitive second coming, but down at Worcester last week, there was another, lower-profile, but equally astonishing return to prominence - one which has reawakened a debate that most observers had shelved at the turn of the millennium.
It has been a full three years since the plug was pulled on Graeme Hick's international career, but his brutal unbeaten 204 against the New Zealand tourists on Monday has sent the psychologists scurrying for their cobwebbed case histories. Within the fortnight, Hick will have turned 38, and after an injury-blighted season in 2003, one wondered how much longer he would be able to motivate himself. On this evidence, and judging by the three sharp slip catches he inhaled against Lancashire in the Championship on Wednesday, he will be striding forward into a fifth decade with the sort of confidence he could never display at Test level.
Hick's innings was a throwback that will have had the New Road faithful rheumy-eyed, for massive hundreds against newly arrived touring sides have long been a feature of his game. In 1996, he clobbered the Indians for 215 of the best; three years earlier he had taken 182 off the 1993 Australians, even if it later transpired that the young Shane Warne had kept most of his tricks up his sleeves. But the best of the lot came in 1988, when Hick cracked 172 off a West Indian attack that included Patrick Patterson, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop.
For seasoned Hickologists, that innings is perhaps the most significant he has ever played. Not only was it definitive proof that he could take on fast bowling of the highest quality, he had also played it in the knowledge that a score of 153 or more would enable him to pass 1000 runs before the end of May, a feat that no-one had achieved since Glenn Turner in 1973. As Sir Roger Bannister would testify, racing against the clock creates a pressure all of its own.
So what does this week's onslaught against the New Zealanders prove? Hick's detractors would claim that - once again - he has demonstrated himself to be a flat-track bully, and it is a sweet irony that the man who first provided him with that label, John Bracewell, is now New Zealand's coach. But Bracewell would be deluding himself if he still believed that were the case. Not only are New Zealand's bowlers fully equipped to exploit English early-season conditions, they have players of the quality and variety of Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori to do so, as well as a burning - almost Australian - desire to conquer all before them this summer. If Hick's hitting hasn't set their preparations back a notch, then nothing will.
Rather than being a flat-track bully, maybe Hick would be better described as a flat-atmosphere bully. As the son of a tobacco farmer from Zimbabwe, he has never been one to seek the limelight, so it is little wonder that Worcestershire - with its riverside location and pastoral cathedral backdrop - has provided him with the perfect home-from-home for the past 20 years. At New Road, the world is watching only through the mediums of binoculars and hearsay, rather than the all-too-public gaze of the multi-angle slo-mo replay.
That line of thought begs the question - how good would Hick have been had he played his international cricket for his native Zimbabwe? That is not to question his commitment to England's cause in any way, but somehow one imagines that his tally of six Test hundreds in 65 matches would have been all the greater if he had played the bulk of his matches in the tranquil, jacaranda-lined atmosphere of the Harare Sports Club.
Playing for Zimbabwe would also have enabled Hick to travel as a curiosity, rather than a reluctant trump card. After seven years of being built up as English cricket's Great White Hope, he had become a marked man by the time his debut arrived. In his first three years of Test cricket, he was tormented by two alltime greats in Curtly Ambrose and Waqar Younis, and one champion sledger in Australia's Merv Hughes, whose lasting impact is summed up by one of Dickie Bird's favourite yarns. "Mervyn!" said Dickie during the 1993 Ashes. "Your language is terrible - what's that nice Mr Hick ever done to you?"
That nice Mr Hick did his utmost to battle back from his early indignities, and he averaged more than 45 for three years after his breakthrough century against India in 1992-93. But mud sticks, and so does a career average that slips further from salvation with every new failure. Once his form deserted him in 1996, Hick was jettisoned for the next 23 Tests, which encompassed an Ashes summer, a West Indian winter, and perhaps most galling, a maiden Test tour of Zimbabwe. We will never now know whether his home comforts would have inspired him (and a generally listless England team) to greater deeds.
He did at least have one trip to Zimbabwe, with the one-day squad in 1999-2000, where his returns for the series were undeniably impressive. He opened up with 87 not out at Bulawayo, and closed with 80 and a career-best 5 for 33 with his perpetually underused offspin. In fact, Hick's one-day career is the only lasting clue as to the depth of his international potential - had it not been for the preoccupation with his Test average, he might well have been acknowledged as England's best one-day batsman of the 1990s.
Big-match pressures are every bit as obvious in one-day cricket - more so in many parts of the world - but it is also a more forgiving form of the game, in which instinct and enterprise are rewarded and careless dismissals are quickly forgotten. Even Ambrose and Co. were taken to the cleaners with an unbeaten 86 in only Hick's third match, while the most mealy-mouthed of Aussies would have to concede their grudging admiration for his three centuries in four innings in the 1998-99 one-day triangular. He was dropped for good at the end of a disappointing winter in 2000-01, but there was a case for his inclusion in last year's World Cup squad, even if he was 36.
And, whisper it softly, there is still a case for his inclusion in the one-day squad. Powerful hitters with a proven reputation in the middle order, a safe pair of hands at slip, and a World Cup final appearance under their belts? They are not exactly two-a-penny in English cricket.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.