How good was David Hookes?
David Hookes's death at the age of 48 has shocked the cricket world. In this article, which first appeared on Wisden.com in June 2002, Chris Ryan assesses the career of one of Australia's nearly-men
David Hookes 1955-2004
© Getty Images
The Gabba dressing-room, January 1986. Australia have beaten India by four wickets in a World Series Cup match. David Hookes wanders out of the shower and spies Greg Chappell, national selector, chatting to Wayne Phillips and a man from Ansett airlines. "Where's David Hookes's gear?" asks the Ansett bloke. Phillips points him in the right direction. The Ansett man strides over and tears off the luggage tag that says SYDNEY - the destination for Australia's next match - and replaces it with one that says ADELAIDE. Hookes is going home. His sometimes fantastic, sometimes flawed, always fascinating international career is over at 30.
Sixteen years later, and the fascination lives on. Part of it lies in the fact that Hookes, Victoria's new coach and an outspoken media commentator, is still a big name in Australian cricket.
Part of it is because Hookes's story is, in some ways, the story of how Australian cricket grew up. If Hookes was around these days, chances are he would boast several thousand Test runs and an average in the mid-to-high 40s. His talent would have been spotted early, then nurtured through thick and thin. It is what happened to Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh; it is what should have happened to Hookes. Instead he was dropped when he should have been picked, picked when he should have been dropped, and is known to a generation of young fans by the following underwhelming digits: 23 Tests, 1306 runs, average 34.36, one century.
Yet even if none of that were true, Hookes's story would still boggle the mind. He starred recently in a half-hour Cricket Legends programme on cable TV. I missed it but a friend says he was struck by Hookes's frankness: his conviction that had he, in 1982-83, converted one of his four fifties against England into a hundred it could all have turned out differently. And again the question, the question that has always nagged but never been satisfactorily answered, was asked. Just how good was David Hookes?
He was so good that during his only Test century, 143 not out against Sri Lanka, he smashed a hundred in a session for the fifth time in seven months. Shades of Gilchrist. He was so good that in a Sheffield Shield match against Victoria he opened the batting, cruised to a century off 34 balls, and commented: "With every shot the ball went where I intended." Shades of Bradman and 254 at Lord's.
He was so good that he was able to maintain his hell-raising demeanour in the tensest situations. Twice, against England at the Gabba in 1982-83 and New Zealand at the SCG in 1985-86, Australia were chasing the kind of fiddly fourth-innings targets that invariably troubled them. Twice Hookes was still standing at the death, on 66 and 38 not out respectively, to see them home.
He was so good that on that fateful night in Brisbane when he was dumped for the last time, he asked the journalist Mike Coward about the record for most sixes in a first-class innings. Fifteen, said Coward. "I'll beat that this weekend," vowed Hookes. He didn't. But he did thrash the New South Wales attack for 10 sixes, 26 fours and 243 runs in 254 balls. Point made.
So where did it all go wrong? It is often said he lacked the patience and concentration to dominate at the elite level. Hookes has claimed Greg Chappell did not help matters in the mid-'80s when he said: "We need you to show us you can make a hundred in four or five hours, not just in two hours."
His footwork varied from crease-bound to comical, yet even here Hookes was not entirely to blame. As he pointed out in his 1993 autobiography Hookesy: "I wasn't coached ... nobody ever spoke to me about it." He regretted turning down a scholarship to Adelaide's Prince Alfred College, where the Chappells' old mentor Chester Bennett would have applied the finishing touches to Hookes's wild strokeplay. Yet that is not to say he lacked an instinctive dedication. As a boy he would place a mirror opposite the TV so that Chappell, Walters and co. became left-handers, like him, and try to emulate their strokes.
Some say he was never the same after an Andy Roberts bouncer turned his jaw to jelly in the first season of World Series Cricket. Whatever the truth in that, it is fair to say WSC hurt Hookes - and not just physically. He was 21 and had played only one Test when he signed up with Kerry Packer's breakaway league, where the emphasis was on entertainment rather than education. He consequently missed a home Test series against Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat, and later a six-Test tour of India, which might have provided the putty to fill the cracks in his technique; cracks which were never adequately sealed.
Which brings us to what is generally considered Hookes's greatest enemy: his lead-footed vulnerability against spin. After managing only 10 runs from six innings on the 1980 tour of Pakistan, Hookes asked Ashley Mallett to bowl to him without pads so that he would be forced to play with his bat. "I was amazed," wrote Mallett. "David was prodding and poking like a novice." Yet by the time Mallett wrote that, in the March '83 edition of the old Australian Cricketer magazine, Hookes had improved enough for Mallett to conclude: "The scene is set for a great season in 1983-84. And I think David Hookes's batting will be a big part."
He never got the chance. Hookes was not picked for a single Test against Pakistan's undercooked attack that summer, even though he had plundered 487 runs at 69 in his previous six Tests. Even though he had been Greg Chappell's deputy in Sri Lanka. Even though he had captained Australia in their most recent one-dayer against India. Even though he had graced the Cricketer's cover twice in the last three issues. Even though, as far as Australian batsmanship was concerned, David Hookes was the man.
A year later it happened again. After playing solidly if not spectacularly in the Caribbean, Hookes was ignored for the return series at home. Even though he was a superb flayer of fast bowling. Even though he was born to bat on bouncy Australian wickets. Even though Australia had vowed to fight fire with fire and Hookes was perhaps the one batsman with the fire to worry the Windies.
It is this, rather than any technical shortcomings, which truly explains that average of 34.36. Hookes was treated shabbily. True, he partly dug his own grave; hinting to Adelaide radio listeners that Rod Marsh should replace Kim Hughes as captain was foolhardy. Not as foolhardy, though, as not giving Hookes a single home Test between February 1983 and October 1985. He was the most gifted batsman, bar none, in a country crying out for gifted batsmen. He was at his most destructive peak. And the world, again, could only wonder: how good was David Hookes?
He was so good that, in more than a dozen paragraphs, we haven't even mentioned the day he drove Tony Greig for five fours in five balls - a feat which, unjustly, remains the one thing most people remember him by.
How good was David Hookes? Better than average, I'd say.
Chris Ryan is a former managing editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and a former Darwin correspondent of the Melbourne Age.