Andrew Hudson to call it a day

Andrew Hudson, a month short of his 36th birthday, will arrive at Kingsmead in his "civvies" on Friday night to announce his retirement from the game he distinguished with his benign, elegant presence for 17 years.

His moment will come during the supper break of the second leg of the Standard Bank Cup semi-final between Eastern Province and the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins. Guest of honour at the match, Hudson will bid farewell to the green (in his heyday very green) turf where he gave thousands of local cricket fans many hours of pleasure.

Hudson may not have set the record books on fire (he averaged a merely respectable 33.45 in Tests), but he played with a grace and sublime sense of timing that set him apart from many of his more utilitarian peers. His square cut, cover drive and pull were strokes of exceptional pedigree.

For a man whose Test career began so vividly with that famous century against the West Indies, Hudson's first-class career has ended quietly, almost anticlimactically. The quota system has effectively done for him this season, restricting him to just four matches for his province. But, true to form, he is not upset by this.

"It has been a little disappointing that I haven't been able to finish off my career well, particularly after scoring that century against Western Australia at Broome last year, but I understand where the (KwaZulu-Natal Cricket) union is coming from. They've had to weigh up the past with the future, and my not playing has provided opportunities for the younger players. I have no regrets."

A deeply committed Christian, the Eshowe-born batsman has little time for regrets. Looking back on his career, his constant theme is that of being blessed by his association with the game.

"Cricket has been very good to me. I've made tremendous friends all over the world. The relationships have been really positive. None of the bridges that I've built with cricketing people have been burnt."

For Hudson, the first years of his international career will always be associated with those unforgettable moments in SA's history when it was accepted back into the world community.

"Many of my best memories are less about individual performances and more about some of those historical moments, such as the trip to India, the 1992 World Cup in Australia and going out to bat at Lord's in 1994."

First up was that remarkable tour of India in 1991, under the captaincy of Clive Rice, when he opened the SA innings with Jimmy Cook at a tumultuous Eden Gardens in Calcutta.

"It was such an emotional moment. With a crowd of 110 000 and the haze, it was almost unreal."

The Zululander recalled having to delay putting on his pads as the SA team walked around the ground acknowledging the thunderous applause.

"I also remember 'Ricey' releasing doves into the sky."

It was hardly surprising, then, that Hudson didn't last long.

"Walking out to the middle, I asked Jimmy if he was feeling nervous. I was staggered when he coolly said no. I was so nervous I was trembling."

His innings was quick and undistinguished.

"Played and missed first ball, nicked off to slip second ball. Off I went to the roars of the crowd and part of me wondered if that was it."

It most certainly was not. One of Hudson's most cherished memories relates to Eden Gardens, and how he eventually managed to overcome what he describes as its "mystique".

"After that duck I made 60 there in a Hero Cup match in 1993, and then, best of all, that 146 in the Test in 1996/7. At that moment, Calcutta became a wonderland for me," he said.

The innings for which he is best known, however, was that 163 at Bridgetown in 1991/2 when SA, now under the captaincy of Kepler Wessels, played the Caribbean kings in a one-off Test. Hudson remains the only South African to date to strike a century on debut.

"Most of it seems like a dream," he said. "I remember being on 99 with Jimmy Adams bowling, and pushing him for a single to mid-on. And I remember getting out to Kenny Benjamin, playing all over a tired yorker."

However, for sheer quality, he rates his batting against Australia in the home and away series in 1993/4 as the highpoint of his career. "I averaged over 50 in those two series and it was very satisfying to realise that I could really play at that level against the likes of Craig McDermott, Shane Warne and Merv Hughes."

There were many good moments to come after that, but Hudson concedes that his consistency suffered a little.

"Perhaps it had something to do with beginning to start a family (with wife Tracey), and it may also have had something to do with the bowlers working me out," he says modestly.

For all the admirers of his strokeplay, there is a perception that Hudson was more fragile at the top of the order than his usual partner Gary Kirsten. He admits that he was vulnerable to the ball swinging away from him at the start of his innings, and there is no doubt that there was a certain frisson of anticipation among the fielders in the ring when he was batting against the new ball.

"I was primarily an off-side player, and I wasn't going to spend all my time leaving the ball. I wanted to attack the bowlers and knew there were risks, as well as rewards."

Hudson and Kirsten were members of the opening batsmen club, what Hudson describes as the "engine room" of the team's batting. Facing fast bowlers armed with the new ball on pitches that are at their most receptive is no easy task. After struggling to remove the shine from the ball, it can be trying watching the middle-order batsman flaying the old ball around the park after you have helped to tire the bowlers out.

"Opening batsmen have to be exceptionally tough-minded, like Gary, because there are lots of pressures. Guys can lose it, go 'bossies' (a little crazy)."

Fortunately for Hudson's mental health, he extended his career by slipping down the order to four or five, a position he occupied to good effect when Natal won "the double" - the inaugural SuperSport Series and Standard Bank Cup in 1996/7.

There was also a perception that "Hudders" looked as though he was not working hard out there.

"The fact is, the more driven I was, the worse I played. I remember a time when Hansie (Cronje) and (then-coach) Bob Woolmer wanted me to work harder, when all I wanted to do was work less. The best cricket I played was when my confidence was up and I just walked out and played. I knew that I could play, and that belief never left me, and I didn't need to hit thousands of balls to establish that.

"A couple of days before the Bridgetown Test I told Kepler I wouldn't bat any more on the shocking practice strip that had been prepared. He was staggered, but that's the way I played. I'm of the Henry Fotheringham school. He just liked someone to throw down a few gentle half-volleys for him to hit. I used to like working my innings out in the middle. Sometimes things felt good, sometimes not. But I was an instinctive player who tended to 'lose it' the more I thought about my technique or what I might be doing wrong."

Hudson will concentrate on his new career as a financial consultant at BOE Corporate.

"I'm happy and stimulated by my work, and I've become very aware that there's another world out there apart from sport."

And, from a personal point of view, he will, after 16 consecutive summers on duty for his province and country, at last be spending a few more days in the sun with his family.