Graeme Hick is again making the news in English cricket for the right reasons. In the early part of the current county season he was struggling to make runs, and, after a moderate season in 2005, many were beginning to wonder if he was about to call time on his first prodigious, then enigmatic, and ultimately prodigiously enigmatic, career.
In recent weeks, though, he's managed to claw himself back to some sort of form, making Championship centuries against Somerset at Taunton and Northants at Worcester.
I was fortunate enough to see both innings and the contrasts between the two were instructive. In the first, on a classic Taunton shirtfront, he initially played with studied circumspection, his hesitancy reflecting his lack of form and confidence. This was an ageing player trying hard to rage against the dying of the light but unsure about whether he still had the technical and emotional resources to do so. However, as the innings built, he became much more fluent, pulling his erstwhile England colleague Andy Caddick for two huge sixes late on the first day, and, on the second, going on to make 182 and share in a record Worcestershire fourth wicket partnership of 330 with Ben Smith, who made 203.
A fortnight later, back on the familiar territory of New Road, he came to the wicket on a cold, breezy day to join the rock-solid and run-hungry Australian left-hander Phil Jaques with Worcestershire 139-3. This time Hick looked more positive and confident from the start, and, once he was past fifty (with Jaques steaming ahead at the other end on the way to a brilliant 202), he unfurled a few shots which reminded everyone on the ground of what he used to be and what he could have become. The best of these was an on-drive off the back foot off one of the Northants seamers which ran to the Diglis End boundary boards like a shot from a gun. As the crowd applauded it was trite and obvious but irresistible to think of how many times he had played such shots in the past, especially in his brilliant youth, and to wonder how long he would continue to do so. Hick finished the first day on 93 not out, going on to reach his 100th century for the county early on the second day before taking his score to 139.
He's older and a bit slower now, bats at five, but the intrinsic qualities which once made him the world's greatest batsman-in-waiting are still there: a sound defence coupled with brutal and dismissive attacking shots all round the wicket. Also, although Hick's years of struggle in international cricket and the passage of time have removed the aura of invulnerability which he once commanded, you can't escape the feeling that, even to the likes of Monty Panesar, who was a Luton toddler when he started making centuries at New Road, he can still be pretty scary from 22 yards away.
Hick and I go back a long way. I first became aware of his name in 1984, when he came to Worcester on a scholarship and made a series of huge scores for the second eleven. Feeling that something quite special might be going on I got in touch with Worcestershire and the club he was then attached to, Kidderminster, with the intention of writing something about him. By a roundabout route I eventually came into contact with his parents, who proudly supplied me with pages of statistics relating to his early school and club cricket in Zimbabwe. The article I had conceived was published in late 1986, by which time he had stamped his mark indelibly on the collective consciousness of the county game. I first saw him play at Worcester in 1988, the season in which he made his epic 405 not out at Taunton (I was revising for my university finals but didn't get a lot of work done that afternoon) on the way to a thousand runs by the end of May, eventually qualified to play for England in 1991, and the rest, sadly, is history.
A difficult start against the West Indies was followed by an intermittently successful but frequently uneasy international career, with Hick all too often giving off the air of a man distracted by his inability to live up to other people's expectations of him. While his technique and especially his somewhat fragile temperament were ultimately exposed at the highest level I believe that it would be wrong to think that he was never as good as he was cracked up to be.
The Hick of the late eighties was a magnificent beast, one of the most dominant batsmen English county cricket has seen in the post-war period. It is this player, not the diffident figure blasted out of the crease by a succession of the world's best pace bowlers of the early nineties, that I like to remember. The best thing about the two recent innings was that, for a period in each, you could almost believe you were back in the time before it all fell away.
Interviewed on TMS by Jonathan Agnew last weekend Hick was unusually forthcoming and interesting. At the moment I think that it is unlikely that he will retire at the end of this season and it should be possible to see him around the country again in 2007.
Take the opportunity while you can.