Were England right to stick with Hick?
The Graeme Hick saga continues. It had appeared that he had finally run out of chances after a succession of poor scores in Pakistan; but a Pakistan batting collapse in Karachi, and a final afternoon run chase in difficult conditions proved just the opportunity for Hick to secure another stay of execution. His 40 may not look much on paper, but in the circumstances (a darkening sky and a threatening Waqar Younis), it was vital to the outcome of the match, and perhaps nailed the myth that he never performs under pressure.
Were England right to stick with Hick for the tour to Sri Lanka, despite the temptation to call up a replacement? He's had plenty of chances (10 recalls and counting) to convert his county dominance into Test success, and we can now safely say that the pre-debut predictions will never be fulfilled. It is naive to claim that the lack of understanding shown to him by various managers and selectors in the past has been the cause of his problems. Certainly it didn't help, but Test cricket is a tough business with no room for mental frailty. He should have been strong enough to cope. His lack of foot movement will always prove a problem, and being something of an "old dog" he's unlikely to learn too many "new tricks". He often seems to freeze under pressure, and his awful hook against Abdur Razzaq, with minutes to go on the third day in Faisalabad, raises questions about his judgement. Hick will never be a world-beater now, but he is a useful team man; no more, no less.
He has many critics. We all expected so much from him in those days when he was scoring 1000 runs, including 405*, before the end of May, and contributing nearly 29% of Worcestershire's runs in 1988. Expectations of him have fallen; while at first-class level he remains a giant, in Test cricket he is now just seen as a good tourist. Supporters' frustration and disappointment at "what might have been" has caused a lack of acceptance from them of a decent team player; but if you view him in this light, with lower expectations, he's done all right.
No one is going to claim that Hick's Test career has been a resounding success. His batting average has slipped to just 32.26, though it has stood at around 35 for the last few years. Not great certainly, but comparable to Gatting, Lamb and Botham of England's recent past. He has six Test centuries to his name, and is still capable of destroying most Test attacks on his day. He started the English summer with a century against Zimbabwe, and his contributions against West Indies - Headingley for example - were sometimes crucial.
He remains as good a player of spin as anyone in the country. He is a quick scorer, adept at picking up singles as well as being capable of more attacking strokes. In England's last Test against Sri Lanka (The Oval 1998) Hick scored a century on a dusty, spin-friendly pitch. Ironically John Crawley, who narrowly missed out to Hick for a place in Sri Lanka, also hit a century in that game. Personally I'd like to see them both there, with Crawley being groomed as the next batsman-keeper. When Stewart does finally retire, his loss will upset the balance of the side enormously.
Hick's off-spin, while hardly world-class, is quite respectable. He was the highest wicket taker in the series in India (1992-93), and in Pakistan took as many Test wickets as front-line spinner Ian Salisbury - albeit just the one. England are keen to play two spinners in Sri Lanka, but if one of them is unlikely to take many wickets, it is imperative they can keep control. Hick concedes 2.56 runs-per-over, compared to Robert Croft's 2.37 so there will be little to choose between them in that respect. Salisbury goes for 3.7 runs-per-over. Neither Hick or Croft are likely to run through a Test batting line-up, so England would do well to use the insurance of the extra batsman. If Brown plays England's tail will be lengthened; he has no pretensions as a batsman.
Competition for the final batting place in the side is likely to be between Hick and Michael Vaughan. There is a danger that Vaughan may become bogged down on slow pitches against spin. Even before his injury in Pakistan he gave no impression of having adjusted to the new conditions. He shows promise, certainly, but a Test batting average of 28 suggests that England are right to bring along an experienced alternative.
Some people have called for younger players should be given more opportunity, but the experiments of South Africa indicate that the selectors have balanced the current side pretty well. There was too little experience available in South Africa, and the records of players such as Chris Adams, Darren Maddy and Aftab Habib suggest that England had been right to persevere with the likes of Hick, Ramprakash and Crawley. These are consistently the best players in county cricket, and have at least shown that they can prosper at the highest level.
One thing is for sure; the Sri Lankan bowlers would have been delighted if Hick had been dropped again. He has another chance at the highest level, but knows that, at the age of 34, more recalls are unlikely if he fails.