Matthew Hoggard March 3, 2008

The shop-floor steward

He may be England's leading bowler, and sixth on the country's all-time list, but as always, Matthew Hoggard is gloomy about his prospects of keeping his place in the side

'Just close your eyes and whang it down' © Getty Images

It's the final day of England's warm-up in Dunedin, and Matthew Hoggard has been feeling under the weather. On Friday, he had to rush from the field and ended up vomiting into a rubbish bin on the boundary's edge, a fact he confirmed in typical Hoggy fashion, by inviting a nearby photographer to come and take a look for himself. "Summat didn't agree with me," he shrugs, as we huddle in the main stand of the University Oval, and watch Ian Bell push along to his century. "I'm fine now."

Of course he's fine. Hoggard is always fine. For seven years and 66 Tests, including 40 in a row up to the end of 2006, Hoggard's indefatigability has been a given. Other flashier bowlers have come and gone, often using mystery ailments to excuse their dicky tickers, but not so the man who will lead England's attack in the first Test at Hamilton on Wednesday. It takes more than a dodgy dinner to keep him out of the side.

And yet the man himself cultivates an air of deep gloom whenever he considers his value to England. "I still feel as though I'm watching my place, watching my back," he says. "I'm forever saying to myself, 'Look, I need to perform.' I still don't think I'm a regular in the team." In part, you might put his insecurities down to his recent, and rare, run of injuries, which enabled him to finish only two of England's 11 Tests in 2007. But he's been like this every step of his career. Hoggard's insistence that he is "nothing special" is precisely what has spurred him on to become something pretty exceptional.

His journey began almost eight long years ago, against West Indies at Lord's in 2000, a match that, coincidentally or not, marked the beginning of England's five-year rise from also-rans to world-beaters. They eventually squeaked home by two wickets thanks to an incredible West Indian batting collapse, but it would be flattering to describe Hoggard's role even as bit part. His captain, Alec Stewart, forgot that he was on the pitch as West Indies capitulated for 54 in their second innings, and you sense that he's known his place in the pecking order ever since.

England's heroes that day were Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, and it was Caddick who once brazenly told The Wisden Cricketer that Hoggard wouldn't get a look-in in a full-strength side. And yet, not only has he looked in on one or two occasions since then, he's surpassed both the big-timers in the all-time list of English wicket-takers. He's currently slotted in at sixth, on 247, just behind that mightiest of metronomes, Brian Statham. "Being underestimated is great, you keep sneaking round the back door," says Hoggard, not entirely ironically. "Long may it continue."

It was Michael Vaughan who best summed up Hoggard's role, on his breakthrough tour to the Caribbean in 2003-04. He described him as the shop-floor steward, the man to sweep up after the glamour boys had made their mark for better or worse. And the image has endured. "There's virtues in someone pushing the batsman back and scaring the shit out of them," says Hoggard. "But there's also virtues in bringing the ball back into them to test their technique in both ways. I just have to bowl in the right areas often enough." Hoggard in media mode is a curious blend of cliché and irreverence.

His favourite self-summary is typical. "I just close my eyes and whang it down. Takes your chances," he says, almost as a mantra. The first time he used the line it prompted an approving burst of laughter from the assembled press corps. These days it elicits only groans. But then again, Hoggard himself is pretty bored of hearing the same old lines being trotted out in the other direction.

There's one in particular that really gets his goat. "It's amazing how many times everybody asks me about being England's most experienced bowler," he complains. "Every time I come on tour, the first question is, 'So, you're the experienced bowler. How does it feel?' Just go back 18 years or whatever, and get your answer from that."

The answer, for the record, is since October 2001, when he was selected to spearhead England's threadbare attack in India. Gough and Caddick had withdrawn for personal reasons, and Hoggard, with two Test caps under his belt, stepped into the breach alongside Andrew Flintoff, James Ormond and Richard Dawson. It was an exhausting baptism, but Hoggard survived initially and then thrived in the final game at Bangalore, where he and Flintoff shared four wickets apiece in an effort that, but for rain, could have squared the series for England.

He might not have known it then, but the disciplines learned on that tour would form the bedrock of his future success. Hoggard's next Test came at Christchurch against New Zealand, and on the first responsive surface that he had encountered in months, he made the ball sing to the tune of 7 for 63. "It was a nice green seamer, a drop-in pitch, much more like the English conditions I'd been used to at Headingley," he recalls. "The ball swung around all day, which was perfect for me, and I thought, 'Yeah, this is the sort of wicket I like to play on.'"

No matter what job you're doing, if someone is getting four or five times the salary for six weeks' work, you're thinking that can't be bad. I'm not retired from one-day cricket - they just won't pick me - so never say never. There's a lot of stupid money flying around, and it's money that makes the world go round
Hoggard on the IPL

In fact, the opposite has since been true. The next time he encountered a pitch quite so amenable was on his home ground at Headingley the following season, but in his eagerness to recreate that Christchurch magic, he tried too hard and enabled India's Sanjay Bangar and Rahul Dravid to negate his threat time and again outside off stump. It turns out his true calling has been on the deadest of dead wickets - from Nagpur in 2005-06 to Adelaide last winter - where nothing but extreme stamina, discipline and accuracy will suffice.

"I think the batsmen just switch off," says Hoggard. "They think it's just a little piddly fart, so we'll play some shots. But it's been interesting. People say I'm only a green-seam bowler and I can't bowl in the subcontinent, but I just have a big heart, and keep on whanging it. Glenn McGrath said just keep banging a length out on off stump. He did that for years and picked up 500 wickets. It's not a bad recipe to follow."

He's followed it to the letter, in Asia especially, where he's picked up exactly 50 wickets at 28.22 in 14 Tests. "If you don't really want to bowl in those conditions, or only half-heartedly, then you ain't going to get anywhere," says Hoggard. "No matter what I play, I do it 100% and wholeheartedly. That comes down to the way I was brought up, and it's either something you've got or you haven't. It's not something you can manufacture."

So how was he brought up? "My dad never let me win, never ever," he says. "Not even when I was three or four. He said, 'If you want to win, you're going to have to beat me.' I finally started winning things when I was about 12 or 13. That's when I started learning how to cheat." That last utterance is pure Hoggard. For a moment he was threatening to bare his soul, only to smother it rapidly in self-deprecation.

His father may have been a tough opponent on the snakes-and-ladders board, but family values are the highest priority for Hoggard. In May 2007, on the eve of the first Test against West Indies, he became a father for the first time, to a robust young nipper named Ernie. Without hesitation, he puts the moment forward as the proudest of his career.

"It just changes your life really," he says. "Now there's something in the world that's more important than anything. It's just completely and utterly changed my perspective on a lot of things." He's no longer so bothered, for instance, about his lack of recognition in one-day cricket - shorter tours mean more time at home. But at the age of 31, he's increasingly aware of the limited shelf-life for a sportsman, and the need to provide for his family while the going is good.

To that end, the booming salaries in the IPL are an intriguing sideshow, and for all of Kevin Pietersen's recent protestations, a rich topic of conversation among the players in New Zealand. "Kerching, kerching, money talks," says Hoggard. "No matter what job you're doing, if someone is getting four or five times the salary for six weeks' work, you're thinking that can't be bad. I'm not retired from one-day cricket - they just won't pick me. So never say never. There's a lot of stupid money flying around, and it's money that makes the world go round."

For the time being, however, such thoughts are just a distant hum on the horizon. The first Test is looming, and Hoggard is more concerned about getting back to winning ways with England after consecutive series defeats. "We've struggled to take 20 wickets lately," he concedes. "The wickets we've played on have been quite flat, but there's been a loss of form and maybe a loss of belief among the bowlers. We've had a lot of injuries, and we've had to find new players to come in, but it's amazing how a bit of luck can turn things your way."

The weather is drawing in, and it's time to vacate the chilly stands for the warmth of the dressing room. First, though, I ask him to name his three proudest on-field moments. The choices are revealing. There's the Wanderers in 2004-05, of course - the definitive Hoggard moment, when he claimed 12 wickets with the rest of the attack on its chinstraps to set up England's win. Then there's his hat-trick in Barbados the previous winter, arguably the first moment he felt he belonged among the big guns of that Ashes-vintage attack.

Big in the east: Hoggard has found success on flat subcontinent pitches, picking up 50 wickets in 14 Tests © Getty Images

But then there's Adelaide - the single most gut-wrenching defeat in England's recent history, but a match from which Hoggard took nothing but immense personal pride. "It was a flat wicket against the best in the world, where I wasn't supposed to do anything," he says, revealing once again the insecurity that comes with the territory. He bowled through a brick wall for England that day, taking 7 for 109 in 42 overs to secure a precious 38-run lead. But then all his fine work was squandered on that frightful final day.

"It really did piss me off, to be in a winning or at least a healthy position, and then to lose it," he says. "It really, really hurt and it was a massive turning point. We knew we could beat Australia because we've done it before. If we could have come out of that with a draw, it would have been a massive morale boost. Instead it was a kick in the bollocks."

So near and yet so far. One wonders what might have happened had that game gone differently. After all, Hoggard was an unfeted Ashes winner in 2005 - it had been Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones who claimed the plaudits among the bowlers. Adelaide could have been Hoggard's own Edgbaston moment, the moment he stepped up off the shop floor and became a hero in his own right. On reflection, perhaps it was never meant to be. Some heroes are destined to remain unsung.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo