England v Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston August 6, 2005

Hoggard's importance to England

As unspectacular as his presence is, Matthew Hoggard's importance to England's recent rejuvenation cannot be over-emphasised



Matthew Hoggard: the shop-keeping opening bowler © Getty Images

Matthew Hoggard is not a headline-seeker. Likened to Shrek, the cartoon character, he has been England's workhorse for the past five years; bowling into the wind, up the slope, and doing most of the other arduous tasks no one else can be bothered with. As unspectacular as his presence is, his importance to England's recent rejuvenation cannot be over-emphasised.

Australians are not in the habit of wasting words, least of all on a Pom. When they and, in particular, their former international quicks, start praising England's bowlers - as Rodney Hogg did of Hoggard yesterday - you know they mean it. In an interview with the BBC, Hogg highlighted him as, potentially, the key bowler of the second day's play; one who, at some point during the Ashes, will win a game for England single-handedly.

Since he established himself within this English side, in what Duncan Fletcher refers to as the "bubble", Hoggard has regularly picked up valuable, match-affecting wickets - especially openers. Since his captain described his role as "sweeping the shop floor", Hoggard has become the shopkeeper of England's bowling attack; more brains than brawn.

Bowling in tangent with two giants, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, his role has been in stark contrast to what the bully-boys offer. Without immense pace and bounce - the apparent must-have attributes of fast bowlers - Hoggard smacks somewhat of a bowler from a bygone era. Which isn't to say he is any less potent; his ability to dismiss top-class batsmen and high-class openers is unquestionable.

The names Chris Gayle, Matthew Hayden and Graeme Smith strike fear, understandably, into most opposition bowlers. All three of them left-handers, Hoggard has dismissed each of them with a regularity that might go unnoticed. While his opening partner, Harmison, famously batters the batsmen into submission - successfully, too - Hoggard relies more on a fuller length, and upon the conditions.

In 2004, when England hosted New Zealand and West Indies, he consistently removed the opening batsmen, thus forcing England into, or back into, the game. Against the West Indians, he removed their openers four times in the series. Indeed, in the second Test at Birmingham, he dismissed Gayle and Devon Smith in the first innings, and Smith again in the second. Ramnaresh Sarwan and Brian Lara may have put on 209 for the third wicket in the first innings, but they were forced into such a rescue act after Hoggard had put the West Indians on the ropes.

The importance of this is significant. Opening batsmen lay a team's foundation, and so do opening bowlers; it is a battle of wills, and Hoggard has won on more occasions than not in recent years. Nowhere is this more emphasised than in South Africa last winter. After Smith had dominated England with such brutality in 2003, England were rightly nervous about a potential repetition of Smith battering the bowlers to kingdom come. It wasn't to be, as Hoggard dismissed Smith no less than four times in the series, consistently troubling him by exposing an off-stump vulnerability. It was arguably Hoggard's domination, not Smith's, which won England that momentous series.

More recently, he has proved his worth against Australia. The previous Ashes series was a total mismatch, as Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer treated him like cannon-fodder - but this was before Hoggard had settled into a confident, winning England side. He bowled Hayden at Lord's with a delivery that even Garfield Sobers would have had trouble keeping out, and again yesterday for a golden duck. After Flintoff's one-man crusade this afternoon - a second, brilliant fifty in the match, and two quick wickets - Hoggard returned and immediately removed Damien Martyn, who was threatening to stabilise a wobbling Australia.

Hoggard has an impressive knack of taking good wickets, regularly. While Hayden isn't yet Hoggard's bunny, Yorkshire's shop-keeping fast bowler will feel he has the one-up on him which, considering his and Justin Langer's astonishing record, is no mean feat. Time to sweep the floors again this summer, Hoggy.

Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo