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Ben Hollioake: a supporter's tribute

I had the privilege to see much of Ben Hollioake's cricket over recent summers at the Oval and other grounds. It was a frequently frustrating experience, for him probably more than others, as he struggled to nail down the form that saw him explode onto the cricket world with his mesmerising strokeplay in the 1997 Benson & Hedges Cup final, and again with his 63 against the Australians that summer.

It was as though he had too much talent, and for the next three summers he battled to hone both his own ability and the final finishing skills of the game he loved to play. There were superb spells of bowling and dazzling cameos with the bat, and there was always his electric fielding, but never the coming together of brilliance and focus to fulfil the potential that those around him knew he possessed. At times, even his big-hearted character couldn't hide how much the disappointments hurt.

In the 2001 season, though, it seemed that his work was beginning to pay the dividends that it deserved. He seemed far more able to concentrate in the nets, and at the crease - in a season when Surrey barely turned up for the National League - his fluid strokeplay and increasingly effective one-day bowling came close to keeping the county in the first division almost unaided. As in 1997, he set the Benson & Hedges Cup alight. His wickets against Hampshire, 50 against Kent in the group stage, and a scintillating 39 not out as Surrey built their total of 361 against Notts in the semi-final were just the appetisers.

That victory set up another date at Lord's, where his brother Adam had taken a gamble on the strength of the side's batting and opted to bat on a dark, grey morning, Ben came to the crease with the score on 118 for five after a flurry of wickets had fallen. Before the big crowd he did that of which he was capable. Responding to the still-swinging ball with equanimity, and answering the sledging with a smile and a dreamily struck boundary, he took the game away from Gloucestershire and deservedly earned the Man-of-the-Match award for the second time in his two final appearances.

His one-day heroics saw him return to the England fold, for which his ability undoubtedly qualified him. In a difficult competition for England against the two strongest sides in the world, he produced some exceptional individual performances. But probably the most significant moment came against Yorkshire in the penultimate game of the season when, in company with Mark Ramprakash, he scored his maiden first-class century. His timing and forcefulness were such that everyone in the ground felt certain that the long-awaited achievement would be the first of many.

When rumours that Ben might be leaving Surrey for another county circulated, there was one central feature to conversations among the county's fans. The Oval would not be the same without him; his ready smile and the sparkle he brought to the game would be much missed. Although he did not live to fulfil his potential, he had rare and special qualities in a sportsman. He was liquid in his skill, unfailingly charming and utterly full of life. He played the game in a way that sent children scurrying to find a bat and ball.