The Abrupt Death of Hope

Ten years ago this evening, during the morning session of the third day of a Test match between New Zealand and England in Wellington, I was standing in my kitchen listening to Test Match Special when Christopher Martin-Jenkins announced that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

English cricket seemed a quiet, stunned place for a long time afterwards.

As the superb Barney Ronay has recently written, in the mind's eye Ben Hollioake will always be the charmingly insouciant kid who effortlessly took the attack to Steve Waugh's Australians in 1997. However, he then struggled to define a place for himself in an England team which still laboured in the shadow of years of failure, and his memory captures a time, now easily forgotten, when Australia seemed omnipotent and any brief shaft of light amid the gloom was seized upon and grasped for more than it was perhaps worth.

In the last summer of his life I saw Ben Hollioake play in a one-day international against Australia at Bristol. It was Owais Shah's debut and he partnered Hollioake to a coruscatingly promising unbroken stand of 70 at the end of the England innings, before, as usual, Australia took the game away from them through a century of crushing, inviolable certainty by Ricky Ponting.

But there were fragile shafts of hope. It was easy, too easy, to find yourself wondering what Hollioake might achieve if he could ever find consistency.

If he had lived, Ben Hollioake would now be thirty-four. His career would probably be winding down, if it hadn't long been lost to the winds of the off-field world and its temptations. It's impossible to know what he might have achieved, but, had he lived to reach the latter years of the Fletcher era and experience the captaincy of Michael Vaughan, he might just have been among the England players who celebrated in Trafalgar Square on 13th September 2005.

And if he hadn't, there's a stronger likelihood that he would have formed part of the England one-day side for many a year. A good few of the thousands of excellent runs made by a man who also made his debut for England in the summer of 2001, Paul Collingwood, might instead have been scored by Ben Hollioake.

But if all else had failed, there does seem to be one near-certainty. Unless something very strange and unforeseen had happened, Ben Hollioake would have become one of the very best Twenty20 players in the world. The game might have been invented for him, with his easy yet powerful strokeplay, effortlessly fast bowling and athletic fielding. Success with Surrey, and for England, and the riches of the IPL would surely have been his.

Of course, given the fragile, if massive, nature of his talent, all the promise may simply have faded. But, for an England fan of a certain vintage, Ben Hollioake, and the icy suddenness of his passing, represented the abrupt death of a little bit of hope.

As The Guardian headlined its report of his funeral:

'So long, Benny boy, you were special'.


A Serious Player

In July 2011, after watching Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the Long Room at Lord's prior to their post-lunch duel with the England attack, I wrote this about Dravid:

'First there is Rahul Dravid. A native of the city of Bangalore in southern India, he has played in 154 Test matches and has scored more than twelve thousand runs. In this innings he has just fifteen to his name. Before lunch he was settling in at the crease, but now he needs to do so again. He is a slim, serious man with distant eyes which carry the memories of thousands of hours at the crease. On the dusty, unforgiving grounds of his homeland, on the palm-fringed greens of the West Indian islands and of Sri Lanka, on the fast tracks of Australia, where players’ reflexes are tested to their very limits. This, batting, is what he does.'

Seriousness - not in the sense of humourlessness but of mental and emotional rigour and precision - often seems to have little place in the modern game. In the age of Twenty20, different virtues are celebrated, and the ability simply to repel bowlers without hitting them for four or six every other ball isn't usually one of them.

For Rahul Dravid, batting was a serious business. Of the great modern Indian trinity he never had the flair or the aura of Tendulkar, nor the elegance or relative unpredictability of Laxman. But, when all is said, he was every bit as good - in the case of Laxman you'd have to say he was better - and as important for the game in his country, and the world, as either of them.

My own relationship with Dravid goes back to his first tour of England in 1996. In my mind's eye I can still see him working the ball around against the Gloucestershire attack while on the way to 86 not out at Bristol. The bowling is largely weak but the impression is of a neat, controlled - yes, serious - young player, if not one who is going to become one of the world's best batsmen.

A few weeks later I am in the Tavern Stand at Lord's when Dravid is dismissed for 95 in his first innings in Test cricket. He immediately becomes a name to watch.

A few years later I am at Bath watching Somerset play Kent. Dravid holds the Kent batting together and the clean lines of his strokeplay, even his many forward defensives, match the exquisite architecture of the city which surrounds the ground.

Then I am at Lord's last summer and he is going out with Tendulkar and returning a few hours later with a century to his name. It feels like a swansong, but we aren't to know that he will do the same, and better, at Trent Bridge and the Oval in the coming weeks.

At first on the 2011 tour he is overshadowed by the attention given to Tendulkar, who has ninety-nine international centuries to his name and is expected to make it a hundred soon. But this passes as people are reminded - or shown for the first time - what a great batsman Dravid is.

I am well aware of how good he is, but one stroke confirms this. When he has about sixty, during the Trent Bridge hundred, he plays out a prolonged defensive duel with Graeme Swann, who is bowling a penetrating line. Dravid does what he has done to many bowlers over many years; he sees out all the good balls, but, as soon as Swann drops errantly short, he rocks on to his back foot and eases the ball through the covers for four with a completely straight bat and an alchemic combination of timing and power. It is a stroke of such class and timing - both in the sense of the way he strikes the ball and the way it fits into the structure of his innings - that it's obvious that this is a batsman as good as any to have played international cricket in a very, very long time.

Tendulkar's words on Thursday, when he said 'I will miss Rahul in the dressing room and out in the middle. All I can say is there was and is only one Rahul Dravid and there can be no other', were touching and true. In the context of the Indian team, one of Dravid's many significances was that he became, along with Laxman and Sehwag, one of the players who mitigated the weight of expectation on Tendulkar's shoulders as the team moved from the era of Azharuddin into the era of Ganguly, and a time when they could challenge the best, both at home and away. And the legend that is Sachin Tendulkar's career would not now appear quite so legendary without the reassuring presence of Rahul Dravid.

It is a cliché, but, when people like this retire, or even die, people say things like 'we shall not see his like again'.

This time it is true. With the way cricket is going, we probably won't.


Defining an Era

Vivian Richards was, is, a proud and unusually gifted man, defiant and mentally impregnable. Like the team with which he dominated the world between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, he was the best of the best of the best.

And the late Runako Morton, another Leeward Islander, with all his wasteful indiscipline and squandered talent, could equally be seen to represent all that has gone wrong with the Caribbean game.

I never bowled to Richards (thank God) and I've never met him, so it's impossible for me to match the sublimely recalled memories of Mike Selvey and The Old Batsman, but, throughout my cricketing childhood and adolescence and young manhood, he was always there.

When he made 291 at an implausibly brown and parched Oval in August 1976, I was ten years old. When, on the same ground, greener this time, he chipped a catch to Hugh Morris to bring his Test career to a close in 1991, I was twenty-five. I wasn't present on either occasion but I can remember exactly where I was and how I felt.

In between those times I was there for some of his greatest innings. The 138 not out in the 1979 World Cup final, concluded by flicking Mike Hendrick into the old Mound Stand with all the ease of a man on an Antiguan beach lifting a small child's best ball into the sea, or the unbeaten century against Surrey in the Benson and Hedges Final in 1981 when Sylvester Clarke became the first bowler we'd ever seen to truly, even slightly, hurry him. Later there was the decimation of England at Old Trafford and the time he took Warwickshire for 322 in the day at Taunton.

Even though I could always see how extraordinary Richards was, I was always just a little ambivalent about him. My elder brother idolised him but I had a preference for players who were just a little smoother and more technically measured. Greg Chappell, Old Trafford, 1977, Gavaskar, The Oval, 1979. They were my batsmen, but Richards was always there.

For people who were around then, Richards defines a world cricket era. You hardly need to think about the shots or the runs, just the rhythmic swagger of his walk to the wicket, and, as Selvey says, the signature, unnecessary tapping of the pitch which was usually the prelude to carnage.

Of course Runako Morton was no Richards, but, to have your five minutes of fame as part of the dying West Indies team of the 2000s, you didn't need to be. In 2007 he came to England and showed something of what he could do. He could have done more, but, like many a West Indies player of his era he came and went like a thief in the night, with few people noticing he had gone, their only memories his frequent brushes with authority.

This week Morton lost his life at the age of thirty-three and Richards celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Test players die young from time to time - since the turn of this century Trevor Madondo, Ben Hollioake, Manjural Islam and Morton - and old cricketers reach sixty all the time.

This conjunction, though, has deeper resonances with the past.

Richards will never really be old, and the West Indies will never really be great again.

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