July 24, 2008

Central plank to rank outsider

Matthew Hoggard's demise as an international cricketer has been swift and has barely provoked comment

The end of the road for Matthew Hoggard © Getty Images

Darren Pattinson's international career is not yet a week old, but already it is, to all intents and purposes, finished. The outrage that greeted his premature elevation to the Test team at Headingley, and the buck-passing that followed England's subsequent ten-wicket drubbing, means his retention for Edgbaston is inconceivable, and his recall for future engagements massively improbable.

And yet, while Pattinson's career dissolves in a peculiar cocktail of sympathy and recrimination, a rather more legendary performer has already faded from view. Aside from a clutch of rueful remarks on Test Match Special, Matthew Hoggard's demise as an international cricketer has scarcely created a ripple of comment. Not since Robin Smith was axed by Ray Illingworth in 1996 has any England player gone from central plank to rank outsider in such a short space of time.

Some might argue that Hoggard is not dead yet, and a glorious recall can only be a spate of injuries away. But if that was the case then surely the moment would have arisen last week - at his home ground of Headingley, as a stand-in for the man who usurped his shop-floor-steward role, Ryan Sidebottom, and against the same opponents who provided him with a career-best 12 for 205 in Johannesburg in 2004-05. Nope, the dream has surely died, and not even the man himself sees any point in pretending otherwise. "I am not bowling a bag of spanners," Hoggard told TMS. "But I am thinking at the moment that, yes, it is over."

How could he possibly imagine otherwise, given the outrageous nature of the snub to which he has been subjected? Leaving aside the actual merits of Pattinson's performance, the facts of the case cannot be ignored. Had Hoggard played, he would quite possibly have become only the sixth England bowler to take 250 wickets in his Test career. Instead, the two scalps that he required were claimed by a 29-year-old roof-tiler from Melbourne with 11 first-class appearances to his name, who - in this era of Kolpak-related confusion - was assumed, even on the eve of his call-up, to be an Australian.

Hoggard has suffered from crises of confidence in his career, but never identity. It is no coincidence that he is the official patron of England's Barmy Army, who not only follow the team through thick and thin, but also recognise a dedicated performer when they see one. When he was first dropped, ahead of the Wellington Test last March, the reaction among the travelling fans was splenetic to say the least. They felt that the people's champion had been sacrificed because of the shortcomings of others - in particular the man who'd just joined him on the sidelines, Steve Harmison.

In fact, on the eve of the match, as the bars of Wellington's Courtney Place rippled with alcoholic indignation, two indisputable truths were agreed upon. If (and, for his followers, it was a small if...) Hoggard had let his standards slip during England's first-Test defeat in Hamilton, he would doubtless come back stronger for the experience. The spineless Harmison, however, would never be seen in international cricket again.

Now, however, with England in desperate need of a strike force to save the series, the smart money is on a return to the fray for Harmy, a player whose ticker is called into question with wearying familiarity, but whose ability to produce the unplayable delivery has never been in doubt. The best Hoggard can hope for, on the other hand, is to be named for Yorkshire's Championship fixture against Surrey on July 30 - which also happens to be the first day of the Edgbaston Test.

His treatment brings to mind the poignant demise of Boxer, the unstinting carthorse in George Orwell's novella Animal Farm, who, as a reward for his labours, is sent to a knacker's yard and made into dog-meat and glue. Memorably, the last England bowler to suffer such a comparison was Angus Fraser, England's honest toiler of yesteryear, who was omitted from the 1994-95 Ashes in favour of Joey Benjamin and the Australian-born Martin McCague (the "rat who joined the sinking ship", whose career graph sets an ominous precedent for Pattinson).

The worry for Hoggard is that even at his very, very best, he was still a player who struggled to justify his role in the side. Even though he played in 40 consecutive Tests from the start of 2004 to the end of 2006, he remained as insecure in his final appearance as he was in his first

The big difference, however, is that Fraser's plight caused uproar, whereas Hoggard's has barely merited a stage whisper. That is particularly true when you compare the reactions of the respective captains. Fraser's case was argued vehemently by his captain, Mike Atherton, who was so annoyed and embarrassed at being overruled by the chairman of selectors, Illingworth, that he failed to tell his friend he'd been dropped.

There's no evidence, however, to suggest that Hoggard's captain (and Yorkshire team-mate) Michael Vaughan fought a similar battle for his reinstatement. Quite the opposite, in fact. Regardless of the blame-game that Vaughan has been playing since the Headingley defeat, it is inconceivable that the selectors would have presented Pattinson as a take-it-or-leave-it choice. As Nasser Hussain remarked in the Daily Mail on Wednesday, it is not in the nature of the national selector, Geoff Miller, to take such an autocratic approach.

Miller, after all, was a selectorial sidekick to David Graveney for eight years before his promotion, and worked with Hussain for the final three years of his tenure. "He would always come up to me and say: 'Is that the team you want, captain?'" Hussain wrote. "I don't remember Miller ever forcing a player on me - or Graveney, for that matter. I can't remember once being told: 'This guy is playing.' It was always Duncan Fletcher and I who made the final call."

Vaughan has previous where obfuscation in the media is concerned - last year he tried to deny blaming England's World Cup failings on the "Fredalo" incident, only to be found out when the Guardian published the tape of his comments on its website. Miller's testy response to Vaughan's latest remarks about "confusion" in the Headingley selection adds to the suspicion that he has again been economical with the truth.

There's no evidence to suggest Michael Vaughan fought for Hoggard's inclusion in the Headingley Test © Getty Images

But if Vaughan was closer to the Pattinson selection that he is letting on, then he must be even further removed from the notion of a Hoggard recall. After all, for the first time in a long time, the pair have been regulars in Yorkshire's Championship side this season. On the face of it, Hoggard's season figures of 24 wickets at 23.87 compare favourably to Pattinson's haul of 29 at 20.86, and in such a situation you'd surely let the experienced player fill the breach. The only man who could have decreed otherwise is the same man who has captained Hoggard in 31 of his 67 Tests, and seen him bowl at his very, very best.

The worry for Hoggard is that, even at his very, very best, he was still a player who struggled to justify his role in the side. Even though he played in 40 consecutive Tests from the start of 2004 to the end of 2006, he remained as insecure in his final appearance as he was in his first. It was, in no small part, the secret of his enduring success - like Ashley Giles, his fellow mortal from the 2005 Ashes squad, he had an obligation to give his utmost in every single performance, because he knew - deep down - that he wasn't good enough to get away with anything less.

Vaughan is a ruthless leader, which is why he is also England's most successful. Perhaps he can tell that Hoggard's not quite as driven as he once was - take his young son, Ernie, for instance, whose arrival in May 2007 "completely and utterly changed [his] perspective on a lot of things". And though Vaughan would never be so undiplomatic in his outbursts, he presumably agrees tacitly with Fletcher's assessment that Hoggard has "lost his nip" and that "his speed has been dropping for a while".

On Wednesday, Fletcher produced another sideswipe. Writing in the Guardian, he claimed that Hoggard had been "very fortunate" to be able to feed off Andrew Flintoff's hostility for much of his England career. And it is true that, when Hoggard took his 12-for in Johannesburg, Flintoff did indeed play a crucial role, roughing up Shaun Pollock at a time when swing alone was not going to win the match. But when England lost at Hamilton in March, Hoggard could, with some justification, blame Harmison for failing to fulfil his enforcer side of the bargain. That is the nature of "bowling as a unit" - which, in Vaughan's words, was precisely what England failed to do in last week's second Test.

Has Hoggard's credibility really tailed off so rapidly that he could not be trusted to raise his game for a valedictory performance in front of his home fans, in a match that began amid fears about the "tiredness" of England's attack? Tirelessness was, after all, Hoggard's most enduring asset - the ability to pound out a length for over after over, spell after spell, on flat Asian-style wickets such as Nagpur, Kandy and Adelaide. Extracting late swing on cloudless, sun-baked afternoons was his forte. With the greatest respect to Pattinson, that sort of experience might have been handy at Headingley.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo