Monday, 18 June 2007

The Bradman of New Road

Thinking of the batting greats of this era, attention, inevitably, will turn first to those who made a big impact on the international scene. But, when people flicking through Wisden see a G.Hick, one of only 16 men to hit 40,000 first-class runs, they will wonder why it is his Test average was only a paltry 31.32.

Graeme Hick, although he was given a generous 65 Tests to prove his worth, can consider himself an unlucky Test cricketer. Having a seven-year qualifying period didn’t help – he is a largely bashful personality and did not enjoy being bandied about as the English Bradman, while his baptism against the West Indies in 1991 was particularly unforgiving. Although his Test career only ended six years ago, Hick played the vast majority of his career in circumstances that bear no resemblance to the plethora of easy pickings available in international cricket today, a point that must be considered in the final analysis.

Moreover, he was perennially a victim of selection upheaval, being dropped no fewer than 11 times throughout his career; he was doomed to continually veering from scapegoat to saviour, and it would have taken its toll on anyone. Shane Warne said he had "really been messed around".

During his only regular run in the side – between the start of 1993 and the end of the ‘95/96 South Africa tour – Hick averaged 45. Yet, testament to the bizarre selection of the era, he was dropped after the second Ashes Test in ’93, despite having scored 178, 47, 68, 26, 34, 22, 20 and then 64 in his last eight Test innings. In amongst it all he played some very fine innings, such as his maiden Test century, 178, in an innings defeat in India and a superb 141 at Centurion Park in 1995. Alas, he never got an Ashes century; Mike Atherton infamously declared him on 98* during the ’94-95 tour.

In spite of his relentless plundering of county attacks, however, his technique did have some fatal flaws, particularly against the short ball. And, it was because he had destroyed county attacks with almost unprecedented regularity prior to his international debut that it was so hard for him to alter his method.

Yet, away from the Test arena, he made runs with unfailing regularity everywhere he went. He has scored over 100 centuries for Worcestershire alone, including 172 against Messrs Ambrose, Patterson, Walsh and Bishop in 1988, at a time when touring games were still treated with respect. And his achievements in, when in his early 20s, being a phenomenal success for Auckland, in ‘87/88 and ‘88/89 and, after a slow start, averaging 49 in the extremely competitive Sheffield Shield in ‘90/91 are seldom remarked upon.

In one-day internationals, where the pressure is great but players are freer to play on instinct, can worry less about technique and the game is generally more batsman-friendly, Hick performed extremely well, averaging 37 over 126 games. Again, however, he was the victim of selectorial blunders, in that he was sometimes, as in 1996, dropped for bad Test form. Even at 36, he surely should have played in the 2003 World Cup.

Yet, throughout all this turmoil, Hick’s run-scoring at New Road remained a constant. To continue playing county cricket with enormous success even after suffering the anguish of international failings has been an exceptional achievement; only once, in ’91, have his international disappointments been replicated on the county stage. Even at the age of 41, Hick has been in terrific form, averaging 47 in the County Championship, including scoring a century off Muralitharan at Old Trafford, and 68 in the Friends Provident Trophy.

Wisden 2007 revealed that only Jack Hobbs has scored more hundreds in all professional cricket than Hick. It is testament to his longevity, his love for the game but, above all, his continued dedication to maximising his wonderful talent. He has, of course, not been the batsman everyone thought he would be when, in those pre-England days, he could do no wrong as he mercilessly put attacks to the sword in a way that was both beautiful and brutal, a fusion of majestic timing, placement and sheer power.

But he has continued, more or less, to do so for Worcestershire; he is unquestionably their finest ever player, owner of their highest ever score and a key man in two of the five Championships in their history. Typical of his unassuming, modest manner he claims that he is “not really fussed” about reaching 40,000 first-class runs. Well, he should be. For 22 years, Hick has been the Bradman of New Road and, for all his failings, cricket will not forget a man whose run-scoring capacity at county level has defied belief.

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