Hooper is a happy man now

IN making 233 at Georgetown, an innings that meshed beauty with power, Carl Hooper told himself, and to a lesser extent the cricket world, that he belonged in international cricket, not in grade cricket in an Australian town. The cricket world has always admired Hooper's skill and lamented the use he made of it. Now, at last, the two seem to reside together. It is a nice story; of the realisation of what you want and of the courage to go and do it.

Hooper was always regarded as one of cricket's stranger objects. It is not an unknown trait among those that are greatly talented. I saw him score his first Test century at Calcutta in 1987, as a raw young man, and had he been an artist, and had I a sharper instinct for investment, I would have bought into him straightaway. It was clear that he was different and that was manifest in almost everything he did after that.

He played wonderful innings that had silly endings and the word on the cricket circuit was that, like many gifted players, he did not think enough about his cricket. Then he started pulling out of tours giving the impression that his mind wasn't really in it. He pulled out of the 1996 World Cup, missed a couple of other events and then announced he didn't want to be part of the 1999 World Cup either. He then retired and chose to live in Adelaide, a quiet unambitious town.

They said he chose his town well.

At that stage 80 Test matches had produced a career average of 33, shockingly poor returns for a blue chip. An ordinary record and a suspect temperament are not great qualifications for a place in history and outside of his native Guyana, few people would have voted for him to have one.

But some people are blessed in that life gives them a second chance. His outlook to life dramatically altered by the illness and subsequent recovery of his young son, now an astonishingly active three year-old, Hooper decided two years ago to return to the game he had embraced and divorced. Often there comes a time in the lives of men when realisation dawns on them and a path emerges. Happier, more stable, more mature, Hooper latched onto his second opportunity.

It would not be easy. There was little goodwill for him in the Caribbean, he was in his mid-thirties and he would need to show the kind of resolve that wasn't always associated with him when younger. Luckily for him, the West Indies were in turmoil and the batting order was like the airline industry in recession. There was enough room and by piling up the runs in domestic cricket, Hooper ensured that he got one of the middle order places. Then, all of a sudden, he got upgraded.

The captaincy of the West Indies team was not a very popular job. Richie Richardson, Brian Lara, Courtney Walsh and Jimmy Adams had tried their hand and found themselves defeated by the whirlpool that seemed to devour everything in West Indies cricket. There was talent in the form of Sarwan and Samuels, Hinds and Gayle, Collymore and Rose, but it was infected by a virus of under performance. The West Indies needed a leader and they needed steel. In Carl Hooper mark 2, they thought they would find both.

The jury is still out on his leadership skill but there is no doubt that he has batted with flair and with purpose. His batting average has moved up to 37, a huge improvement given the baggage he carried, and as captain, he averages around 50 which puts him among a different league of batsmen. And now this innings of 233 which would go a long way in adding to his self-belief.

Even allowing for the fact that it was scored on a track that must have had bowlers thinking the days of slavery were back, it was an astonishing innings. You could see, in the first thirty runs, that he was uncertain, that he was carrying a burden and that he was tentative. But the mission that has brought him thus far nurtured him. A couple of missed chances and the odd mishit soon gave way to some amazing shots. And as the runs started appearing the confidence returned but without its old partner, impetuosity. This was an innings of great skill but it was also an innings of great maturity.

He looks a happier man these days. He waves and smiles easily and stops for a word or two. And if he stops looking out to sea during interviews, his media transformation will be complete as well. I think the happiness, the more relaxed coat to his personality, comes through in his cricket as well. That is important for finally it is the mind that drives the body.

He is 36 now and from the manner in which he is playing, could easily look at another two years in the game. He could enrich it greatly in that time.