The shy and retiring run machine
No sportsman has got to me quite like Graeme Hick. It is not just the depth of emotions he has inspired; it is the variety. He is the ultimate enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a whopping great paradox.
As a young man - a boy really - Hicky broke pretty much every record that was there for the breaking. Twenty years ago he scored 1000 runs before the end of May, including 405 not out against Somerset. He was the youngest player to score 2000 runs in a season, the youngest to hit 50 centuries, and the second-youngest to reach a hundred hundreds.
This broad-shouldered, silent hulk arrived from Zimbabwe a month before his 18th birthday in 1984 with little more than a cricket bat for company. When he finally qualified for England in 1991, he was going to be its saviour.
He did not bat with the grace of a Gower or the swashbuckling charisma of a Richards. He simply stood there, straight-backed, stared at the ball, waited for a bad 'un and smacked it to the boundary. He scored his runs quickly but he was never truly thrilling. What he had in spades was judgment, patience and a pair of mighty arms. Hick was a farmer's son and there was something appropriately rustic about the way he would raise his bat scythe-like and smite the ball. He was also a decent spin bowler and a brilliant slip fielder.
On the eve of Hick's Test debut (a debut shared by that other great enigma Mark Ramprakash) Brough Scott wrote: "The promise is so fresh and so infinite that there is also a touch of sadness about it." It was a prescient comment. Hick scored six in each innings. By August he had been dropped, having scored 75 runs at 10.71. He was dropped in virtually every series he played after that. He was dismissed as a softy by those who should have known better. The England coach Ray Illingworth called him a crybaby after he was dropped yet again. Some dismissed him as a flat-track bully, said he couldn't play the true quicks, and scoffed at his suspect temperament and lack of technique.
Me, I just cursed the way such a talent had been destroyed by poor management. I still believe he could have had a Test average in the 50s if only those in authority had put an arm round his shoulder and kept the faith.
It was not just Illingworth who mistreated him. During the 1994-95 Ashes tour, when he was 98 not out and battling his way back into form against Australia in Sydney, Mike Atherton (a caring man in every other way) declared, accusing Hick of scoring too slowly. Hick was too good-natured to hold a grudge but the pain and shame of being stopped on 98 stayed with him forever. He once told me: "I regard Athers as a good friend, but I wouldn't have minded a good thump at him."
After his Test failures he would go home to Worcester, where everybody adored him, put his head down, pile on the centuries, return to the England fold and disappoint again. There were successes. He scored six Test hundreds and averaged 31 - disappointing certainly but not horrendous.
|He did not bat with the grace of a Gower or the swashbuckling charisma of a Richards. He simply stood there, straight-backed, stared at the ball, waited for a bad 'un and smacked it to the boundary|
But ultimately for a man of such immense ability he failed at Test level. And the more he failed, the more devoted I became to him. In 2002 I interviewed him for Wisden Cricket Monthly. What moved me about him most was his honesty. He might be notoriously shy, he might hate interviews, but I have never heard a sportsman speak so openly and eloquently. It soon became obvious how much he had been misunderstood. Despite his reserve he was an emotional man. Just watching his kids at sports day left him in tears.
He told me how he had been to a psychologist, who said that to move on he had first to admit to someone close to him that he felt he had failed as a Test cricketer. He smiled sheepishly as he explained how he gathered the strength, gulped out his confession, and his friend continued waffling on as if he had not heard what Hick had told him.
He said that he had finally learned to enjoy the successes and stop torturing himself over the things that did not go to plan. His most important innings for England? Scoring 40 in Karachi to help clinch the series against Pakistan in 2000-01.
Hick loved scoring runs but he was the polar opposite of Geoffrey Boycott. If anything, he could have done with more ego. This was six years ago. We were in the changing room, a storm was blowing up outside and the day was closing in. So, it seemed, was his career. After all, he was already 36. But he was determined to go on. It was as if he hoped that somehow his astonishing success at county level would eventually erase the disappointments of his Test career. After a couple of fallow years he started hitting centuries for fun again - in his forties.
He proved himself an immense Twenty20 player and says he may play on in this format in India. As for the first-class game, he leaves with an average of 52-plus and 136 centuries, which places him eighth on the all-time list of century-makers In all cricket he is the second most prolific run-scorer, behind Graham Gooch, passing 64,000 runs this summer.
Rather then focusing on what could have been, it is time to celebrate what has been a truly remarkable career.
Simon Hattenstone is a feature writer for the Guardian. This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here