Despite his squeaky clean image, Michael Atherton has a fair few skeletons in his cupboard. There was the ‘dirt in the pocket’ affair for a start, the photos of him all chummy with Robert Mugabe, plus the time he left Graeme Hick stranded on 98* at the SCG, declaring an over earlier than had apparently been promised. Hick’s runs had come from 166 balls, exactly the same number as faced by Atherton in the same innings. And how many runs had the captain himself made? Just 67, a damning statistic if ever there was one.
But what if he hadn’t been quite such a git and had allowed Hick to bat on to three figures? We consulted the 51allout crystal ball for a view on the future that never was (actually, we say crystal ball, but it’s basically a cheap globe thing that we had left over from our Labyrinth phase, when we briefly failed to master contact juggling).
After Hick reached his hundred in Sydney back in 1994, the third Test ended in a draw, despite Australia’s wobble on the final day, a result that also ensured Australia retained the Ashes. Hick’s prolapsed disc kept him out of the final two games of the series, with England winning in Adelaide and losing in Perth, but it was clear that his confidence had been massively boosted by his third Test hundred, his first against Australia.
The following English summer saw the arrival of the West Indies, the side that had caused so many problems for Hick during his debut series four years previously. This time he wasn’t to be intimidated, taking on the short ball in almost cavalier fashion. Sadly his scores of 73* and 82* were lone stands as Brian Lara inspired his side to a comfortable win at Headingley but at Lord’s it was a different story, Hick making 13 and 67 before Dominic Cork stole the headlines, and the win, with a seven wicket haul.
The third Test at Edgbaston became infamous for the quality (or lack thereof) of the pitch. As England crumbled to an innings defeat inside three days, Hick’s brave second-innings 66* stood out as a beacon of hope. He then followed that up with a superb 142 (plus the prized wicket of Brian Lara) as the home side squared the series at Old Trafford.
From this point on there was no stopping Hick. He completely dominated the fifth Test at Trent Bridge, making 118* and a glorious run-a-ball 88 as England set up a declaration, the game ending in a draw as the West Indies clung on. But then came his magnum opus at The Oval, an unbeaten 235* followed up by four wickets on a turning pitch as England claimed the series win at the last.
Hick’s astonishing efforts – 887 runs at an average of 177 – were proof that, four years later than expected, he had finally arrived. The plunderer of runs at county level was now a plunderer of runs at the very top level. Another 500 runs followed in a drawn series in South Africa, with Hick’s unbeaten 72 in partnership with great friend Michael Atherton (185*) key to staving off defeat in Johannesburg.
By the time India arrived in the summer of 1996 Hick was flying, reaching a double hundred at Lord’s just as news filtered through of England’s penalty shoot out win over Spain in Euro 96. It was party time in the UK. Now ranked the world’s number one Test batsman, the man from Zimbabwe became a household name, a symbol of all that was good about modern British culture. A picture of him in the Wembley rafters, sat alongside David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, holding his head in his hands after Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss, was in every newspaper the following day.
That was followed up by a well-received appearance on TFI Friday where Hick found himself moving in new circles. Just a few weeks later he was introducing the Sex Pistols as part of their reunion tour before being seen drinking in the VIP box with the likes of Noel and Liam Gallagher.
While the drinks began to flow, the runs did too. Pakistan were put to the sword – Hick frustratingly run out on 299 at Headingley – before a triumphant return to Zimbabwe saw England win both Tests in style (“he flippin’ murdered them”, said coach David Lloyd of Hick’s performance). Another comfortable series win, this time in New Zealand, led into the 1997 Ashes, where England fans finally believed that they could regain the urn after eight long years.
That belief grew even stronger as England won the first Test at Edgbaston despite Hick’s absence with what was described as ‘a minor muscle injury’. They also fortuitously drew the second, despite being bowled out for just 77, thanks to the weather. Hick was again surprisingly absent, this time with a bad case of the flu.
When Hick finally returned to the side for the third Test, pundits and viewers alike were shocked by his appearance. He was pale, gaunt and fragile, with red eyes hidden behind sunglasses, even in the darkness of the Manchester summer. He looked fidgety at the crease, struggling his way to scores of just 3 and 11 as England were crushed. To add insult to injury, Hick dropped three catches at slip, each more simple than the last.
By the time England announced their side for the fourth Test of the summer, speculation was running wild. When Hick’s name was excluded (officially due to ‘a toe injury’) that speculation increased tenfold. Where was Graeme Hick? What had happened to England’s best player?
The truth finally emerged four days later, with the News Of The World exclusively revealing that Hick was in The Priory, undergoing rehabilitation foran addiction to various drugs and alcohol. He was never to play international cricket again.
When Hick finally reappeared to play county cricket for Worcestershire in the summer of 1999, he was a changed man. The confidence at the crease was gone. There would be glimpses of the past in a glorious cover drive, the words ‘Duncan Fearnley’ displayed for all and sundry to see, but it would inevitably be followed by a loose shot. Then the head would bow and Hick would solemnly walk away to a smattering of almost apologetic applause, as if the crowd were cheering the past rather than the present.
Hick retired after the 2000 season, leaving England and its ever-present paparazzi culture to retreat to Zimbabwe where he tried (and failed) to run for government. He has not been seen publicly since 2006.