Next Tuesday, a quiet, unassuming man will take to the field on his 40th birthday as Worcestershire play Glamorgan at New Road in what is already looking like the wooden spoon contest at the basement of the County Championship Division 2.
I doubt there will be much of a fanfare outside of the Worcester faithful – the media hullabaloo that hounded Graeme Hick during the nineties has been diverted by Ashes victories and batsmen with spiky hair who date pop stars and supermodels. And he’d want it that way, for the last five summers the former England man has been free to concentrate on doing what he does best – battering domestic bowling attacks and etching his name ever deeper in county folklore.
In the twenty-two seasons he has been turning out for Worcestershire, he has become one of the greatest ever to play the first class game – 10th on the all time centuries list with none of his contemporaries anywhere close. Yet at test level he found himself some way off the pace.
Much has been made of this, earning him the frustrating and somewhat derisory “enigma” tag. “See, he’s now’t but a flat-track bully,” smirked the tabloids, adopting John Bracewell's putdown as Curtley Ambrose pinged in the short stuff and clinically destroyed his self-esteem. The negative press received by Hick immediately after his debut series against the West Indies in 1991 was breathtaking in its unhelpfulness, coming, as it did, hot on the heels of such a build-up, such misguided optimism.
While slightly suspect technique against the short-pitched ball was certainly a factor, it is unfair to suggest Hick was only capable of succeeding against journeyman trundlers – he smashed many a ton against the tourists during chilly season openers at New Road but his mental fragility was all too often exposed during the big games. Clearly this was a man more at ease with applause rippling around picturesque county grounds than the baying of the sunburnt masses, and he was often reduced to a timorous wretch in the test arena.
I suppose you can’t blame the media for being callous – it’s what they do. But this persecution coupled with England selector Ray Illingworth’s decision to drop him an astonishing ten times meant that test audiences rarely glimpsed the real Graeme Hick.
In the early nineties, Mark Waugh was also struggling. In 8 tests from 1991-2 he averaged just 11 including a run of four ducks in a row, but the Australian management kept faith and were rewarded handsomely by ten years of exceptional success.
Our selectors are learning though. With the exception of the indefatigable Andrew Flintoff, most of the other players in the team have gone through patchy spells recently but been retained for the sake of continuity. Had Hick been shown the same confidence, who knows what a force he could have been?
This may sound like whingeing – tired mitigation of a player who had several chances and blew them all, but I am a fervent Hick apologist – and I admit that frankly I’m a bit of a bore about it at times. When he fails I am miserable. When he scores a hundred I inwardly glow and outwardly fist-pump the air like a deranged loon.
While I’m in a confessional mood, I can also claim to have smashed up my fair share of remote controls after poor performances – during his banishments from the national team, I would pointedly look for his score before England’s and I’d wager not too many people get sweaty palms as they wait for Teletext to flick round to Worcestershire vs. Durham on a slate-grey Thursday afternoon in May.
I admit that Hick is an odd choice for such reverence – he’s not a particularly inspiring character. In his interviews he is a nervous mumbler and even on the field he looks unpopular, standing at second slip, massive hands shoved in his pockets, staring absent-mindedly at the turf while his team-mates in the cordon chatter away merrily. When a wicket falls he is often on the periphery of the huddle like bullied kid habitually relieved of his lunch money who still seeks the respect of his peers but will never achieve it. Despite the ability and experience he is devoid of the joie de vivre shown by Flintoff’s current mob.
Hick first got my attention during that golden summer of 1988 when his 405* at Taunton thrust him firmly into the spotlight. Like many eleven-year-olds, my hero was Ian Botham, and my fleeting, fickle affiliation to Somerset County Cricket Club evaporated the day he moved to Worcestershire. The combination of old buccaneer and new kid on the block cemented my support.
Frustratingly for such a devoted (and some might say obsessed) fan, I rarely actually saw Hick in full flow. When the TV cameras are on him there is an awkward inevitability about his demise - every ball is a heart-in-mouth moment. Listening on the radio is even worse – Henry Blofeld’s rasping crescendo of excitement – a moment’s uncertainty as that eccentric bastion of the microphone muddles his words – and then the death knell “He’s out! He’s out!” or some equally definitive piece of commentary, and, as Hick trudges back to the pavilion, I switch off Test Match Special and go down to the bottom of the garden to eat worms.
As a student in Nottinghamshire my £16 season ticket bought me access to the pavilion and to within touching distance (God, now I really do sound like a stalker…). I went to watch when Worcester came to Trent Bridge and Hick breezed to fifty in a rain-interrupted one-dayer. I’d ducked in for a pint and he stalked past, head down, giant strides, a man utterly focused on the job in hand. Ironically it was probably this concentration, this quiet aloofness that was the greatest detriment to his public likeability.
As he passes 40 (usually a sign that a ton is imminent) he has put on record his desire to keep on playing and I just hope there are more centuries out there for him. His form has been poor so far this season and it would be a shame if a career as impressive as his were curtailed by one final ignominious sacking. Such a great servant to his county and the game in general deserves to go out with a roar, not a whimper.
Blowers: Muddled excitement