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Cricketing immortals welcome 'flat-track bully' into ranks

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

September 5, 2007

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A MAN'S reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Graeme Hick may never be a truly fulfilled talent unless he returns to the England side and enjoys an Indian summer, like Tom Graveney, one of the three who have now scored their hundredth hundred at Worcester. But his is a rare and wonderful achievement and this is a time to forget the frailty and congratulate a gentle man and glorious batsman, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Of course he has sometimes disappointed himself and others. The perfect talent, after all, has never existed. As Enoch Powell observed of politicians, so one might say of cricketers that every career is bound to end in failure; or, if not failure, at least not complete satisfaction. Don Bradman, as everyone knows, made nought in his last Test innings.

Along the way, Hick's performances have often demanded comparison with Bradman. His first century of any kind was recorded at the age of six. He was still a schoolboy of 18 when he represented his native Zimbabwe in the World Cup of 1983 and played a part in the sensational defeat of Australia at Trent Bridge. In 1988, three years before he could qualify for England as a Test cricketer, he made the highest score then made in England this century: 405 not out against Somerset at Taunton.

A few weeks later he joined Glenn Turner as one of only two post-War players to score 1,000 runs before the end of May and in what was to prove a deceptive indication of his ability to dominate Test attacks, he reached the landmark at the last possible opportunity against a full West Indian Test attack.

How could a man lacking mental steel have started an innings against some of the fiercest and finest fast bowlers in the world knowing that he had to make at least 153, with the eyes of the world upon him, and succeed as handsomely as Hick did then - he eventually scored 172 - yet prove fallible so often when the inevitable Test career did finally begin?

He has managed to conquer the best bowling under extreme pressure, but more often than not he has not. A natural shyness, the long wait to qualify for England and the huge, unreasonable expectations when he did all help to explain it. So did the fact that one or two loose technical habits became ingrained against relatively easy bowling. But that has never been the whole answer to the way in which a man who sees the ball so early by nature and sends it winging to all parts of the boundary with such grandeur so often, has been prey to the yorker, the bouncer and even the googly at different times for England.

As rabbits and hedgehogs have learned, with time, not to become transfixed by the headlights of oncoming cars, Hick has improved but never managed to completely conquer this tendency. There is something, too, in John Bracewell's withering observation of the 'flat-track bully'.

But a hundred first-class hundreds puts each man who has done it on a pinnacle of cricketing accomplishment. It does not make him a great player, but it does make him a cricketing immortal. It is a shame that the youngest man to score fifty hundreds, in 1990, could not also be, eight seasons later, the youngest to a hundred, but Hick will not mind being second to Wally Hammond, one of the greatest all-round cricketers who ever pulled on a batting glove, nor being admitted forever to a club whose 23 other members include Bradman, W G and Jack Hobbs amongst the greatest names of the past and Viv Richards and Graham Gooch among his contemporaries.

It is delightful that he should have reached his milestone on his home ground, as Grace and Hammond, Hayward and Compton, Ames and Amiss, Graveney and Turner, John Edrich and Boycott all did, but several of the others did not.

Gooch, the last man to do it - early in 1993 - reached his in Cuttack at the start of a tour which was to become something of a debacle; Phil Mead, though he had risen from the soil of Hampshire, was destined to reach his milestone at Kettering.

Anywhere would have done, of course, for them all. It is a milestone possible only for someone blessed with rarefied talent and, do not doubt it, considerable character too. Hick has often seemed a shrinking violet; but disciplined living, a determination to keep himself fit, perseverance and immense powers of concentration have all gone into the career which reached what may not be its final peak at the age of 32 yesterday.

An adopted Englishman he may be, but Worcester has long been his home and he has been happiest there, among his own admirers and supporters, rather than in the hostile atmosphere of Test cricket, or amid the restless atmosphere of an overseas tour, where reporters hover and cameras pry.

He deserved his joy yesterday in the presence of his wife, Jackie, who has shared many a moment of depression as well as elation since his England career began seven years ago and ended, temporarily or finally, with 13 innings which produced only one fifty, following his truly commanding century against South Africa at Centurion Park in November, 1995.

Vivien Saunders, author of The Golfing Mind, advises those who get tense on big occasions to envisage their favourite hole on their favourite course and mentally to drive off there rather than from the tee on which they actually are. That psychology applied to Hick might well have brought out the best in him more often in the Test arena, where so often he seems to have frozen.

If only he could have transported himself to a sunny afternoon at New Road when Waqar or Wasim or Warne or Walsh was running in to him on some distant field, there would surely have been more than the four hundreds scored so far from his 80 Test innings which have brought an average of 36.

Not a failure; but equally not the full extent of what might have been achieved by one of the hardest, straightest and sweetest drivers of a cricket ball who ever lived.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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