September 3, 2008

An embodiment of county cricket

A tribute to Graeme Hick, who has announced his retirement in his 25th year in county cricket

"One day I'll just get out of bed and come down to the ground and think 'I've had enough'. Whether that comes in July, August, September or while in a gym in October, who knows, but I've always hoped that's the way it will happen."

Top Curve
Graeme Hick: Run machine

  • As a 22 year-old, Hick made 1000 runs in the 1988 season before the end of May, including an unbeaten 405 against Somerset
  • He hit three half-centuries in the 1992 World Cup to help England reach the final
  • Hick topped England's batting and bowling averages on the tour of India in 1992-93, scoring his maiden Test hundred. He averaged 46.44 in Tests between 1992-1995
  • He became the 24th batsman to make 100 hundreds when he scored his second century of the match against Sussex at New Road in 1998.
  • In a tri-series against Australia and Sri Lanka in 1998-99, Hick made over 500 runs - including scores of 108, 66*, 126* and 109 in successive innings - and was England's Man of the Series
  • In 2001 Hick scored 200* against Durham, completing the set of first-class hundreds against all other 17 counties, both home and away
  • In 2008 Hick became the second most prolific run-scorer in all cricket (first-class and limited-overs combined), with more than 64,000 runs to his name
  • Hick's tally of 136 first-class hundreds ranks eighth on the all-time list

Bottom Curve

That was Graeme Hick on the eve of his 40th birthday, two years and three seasons ago, and his prophecy has proven to be spot-on. Aside from a niggling elbow injury that has hindered his participation this summer, there was no obvious sign that the end - finally - was nigh. Had Hick taken guard for one more season in 2009, no-one would have been the slightest bit taken aback, except perhaps the county bowlers who must now be breathing a wistful sigh of relief that their 25-year sentence has been lifted.

There is still the best part of a month of the 2008 season remaining, and with Worcestershire sitting at the top of the second division of the Championship, Hick has the chance to sign off with a measure of the glory that his lengthy service deserves. But win or lose, he will soon be gone, and while those whose judgment derives solely from feats achieved at the highest echelons will size up his Test record and shrug, countless others will rightly mourn the passing of one of the gentle giants of the game.

More than any other cricketer, Graeme Hick has come to embody - for better and for worse - the fading magnificence of county cricket, a version of the game that has existed since the early 1800s but whose relevance in this 100mph world of Twenty20 cricket seems to face new questions on a daily basis. But those that live fast, die young, and leave little for the memories. Hick chose instead to slow down and endure - like a stately galleon, he proved ill-equipped for the iron-clad warfare of modern Test cricket, but his billowing sails patrolled the calmer waters of the shires for a full quarter of a century.

Does it matter that he was found wanting at the very highest level? Of course it does, and doubtless retirement will afford him plenty of time to dwell on the moments that might have made a difference. If only he could have adopted a less cluttered mindset when facing Curtly Ambrose during that traumatic debut series in 1991. If only he could have read the match situation better at Sydney in 1994-95, and hustled to his hundred instead of compelling Mike Atherton to leave him high and dry on 98 not out.

If only the security of the central contract system had arrived ten years earlier, and bonded him to a team ethic that was palpably lacking for much of his piecemeal international career. Whatever the reasons for his shortcomings, the limelight never suited him. Instead the definitive period of Hick's career was not his turbulent decade in and out of the England team, but the 15 languidly brilliant years at New Road that bookended his time at the top. His six Test hundreds are mementoes he'll doubtless treasure, but for his county he scored no fewer than 106 - out of a grand total of 136 that places him eighth on the all-time list of first-class century-makers.

That list, however, is already a living anachronism. Mark Ramprakash, whose career mirrors Hick's in so many ways (and whose England debut came in the same Headingley Test in 1991) became the 25th man to reach 100 hundreds earlier this season, but the chances of anyone ever emulating that feat are as good as non-existent. From WG Grace through Frank Woolley to Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch, there once was a common narrative to the game of cricket. All that is changing at a frightening pace, and the notions of love and loyalty that sustained Hick throughout his Worcestershire career are fast being replaced by the quest for a quick buck.

And perhaps, tragically, that fate has also been forced upon Hick himself, because as he conceded in a tearful farewell to the media, the prospect of him signing for the rebel Indian Cricket League has not been entirely ruled out. At the age of 42, but with the fitness of a man half his age, who could begrudge him the chance to secure a nest egg for retirement, especially in a form of the game for which his bold strokes might have been invented? But in the light of the woes that befell Kent this season, there's no alternative but for a complete severing of Hick's cricketing umbilical cord.

 
 
But those that live fast, die young, and leave little for the memories. Hick chose instead to slow down and endure - like a stately galleon, he proved ill-equipped for the iron-clad warfare of modern Test cricket, but his billowing sails patrolled the calmer waters of the shires for a full quarter of a century.
 

That means tearing himself away from Worcestershire, the one team to which Hick truly belonged during his days as a professional in his adopted country. With its bucolic river-frontage and cathedral backdrop, it's not hard to understand why Hick, the modest son of a Rhodesian tobacco farmer, felt at peace in such surroundings, and he repaid them with the finest days of his life. The bright lights were never his scene - except, perversely, for the occasions in which he batted under them in one-day internationals for England, when instinct was able to surplant circumstance, and the full array of his talent was given a chance to breathe.

Hick never had such problems being his own man on the county circuit. When he arrived at Worcestershire as a callow 18-year-old in 1984, he stunned the old stagers with the uncomplicated certainty of his strokeplay - that season he made 84 unbeaten runs on debut against Surrey, and in 1986, became the youngest player ever to pass 2000 runs. England recognition followed the moment he completed his qualification period in 1991, and though we'll never truly know why he couldn't reproduce his county form for his country, that inevitability of selection, coupled with the anxiety of waiting, surely helped to turn him into a marked man.

The scars of his England experience have long since healed, and the Hick who heads for retirement is a man who knows he gave his all for the sport - and the club - that he loved. Quite what he leaves behind him, however, is another matter entirely. Perhaps his very longevity has perpetuated the era that he helped to define, but without his totemic presence in the first-class averages, there's suddenly a void that may never be adequately filled.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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