There's no one likely to take his place

TED CORBETT

DEAR Ben Hollioake; lithe, languid, lustrous and gone before his time. It was impossible to meet the man without being charmed and those of us who saw his first brazen innings against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne thought the world had turned turtle, that here was a hero to drag England towards the heavens, even though he was only 19. And at Lord's too!

Behind me a mighty figure from the past grumbled and muttered. "Feet in the wrong place, using a bat like a mallet, he'll never make a Test batsman. And look at his bowling. Has he never heard of bowling to your field, keeping the ball under control, short of a length outside the off stump?"

The next morning Ben adorned the front and the back pages, spoke on television, revealed that he had no idea how many he had scored until he met Alec Stewart in mid-pitch and heard him say: "You'd better wave your bat to the crowd. They're standing up to applaud your fifty!"

An English crowd so excited they stood up to greet a lad reaching fifty off the Aussies! No wonder we all thought we were dreaming. At that moment we had an Englishman putting the finest Australian bowlers to the sword, making them look foolish even. Surely now we would win back the Ashes and march straight to the top of the world championship.

You know what dreams are. Well, we dreamed them all that day.

Later that season he repeated the feat in a cup final when he was out one more huge stroke from a century. You cannot imagine the excitement. Young, glamorous, and still in his teens! Here was a great man of the future. By now he was on the front of magazines, every piece on the social mores of the times contained his pictures and his input.

Young maidens swooned, crusty old sports editors licked their lips and at Surrey he was the main focus of their publicity, the centre of all those gimmicks they love involving children and parents.

For a few minutes in the long hot Ashes summer of 1997 Ben Hollioake was English cricket.

Sadly, the old Test player in the Press Box was right. Ben proved to have not just feet of clay but legs of wax. It took him another four years to score a century for Surrey, by which time he had thrown away a dozen chances to shine for his county, lost his England place, and been scorned by spectators who watched him in Barbados as he yawned on the boundary. Worst of all, he proved less reliable than his shorter, older, less talented brother Adam.

If only, we sighed, Ben had Adam's brains and application. If only Adam had Ben's keen eye. natural swing of the bat, easy swagger, extra pace. Surely not another England lad with an abundance of ability, a starlet at 19 and forgotten at 24. It seemed he was just that; young, gifted and lazy. What a shame.

It was in Sharjah that Adam first pointed out to me that Ben's day was somewhere in an uncertain future. I saw a deep shadow pass over Ben's face during a conversation and realised he had been dropped.

A few minutes later Adam joined the Press pack. "Adam, Ben looked pretty disappointed when you told him he was not to play in this match."

"Yes, Ted, but Ben Hollioake is 21 going on 30 in cricket terms and he will have to get used to being told that he is not yet ready for England."

Now we will never know if Adam's forecast is correct and that is the greatest pity of all. That tiny incident in Perth, when he was sober, on a road he knew, in a car he was well equipped to drive, with his family watching, his girlfriend alongside him. A fraction of a second proved how fragile the fittest human body can be.

England will miss him but so will all of us who met him however briefly. Not just because he was a potentially greater all-rounder than Andrew Flintoff, who has grown up more quickly, or Craig White who may have gone beyond his peak. But mainly because he wore his glamour lightly, even if he was always ready to share his thoughts with anyone who entered his world.

I will not easily forget an afternoon in the Headingley Press Box when he and Adam provided what can only be described as an hour of pure entertainment. They described table tennis matches so competitive that they were forbidden to take the score beyond 18-18 lest yet another fight break out, joked, laughed, refused to take their new status seriously.

The edge between them was all too obvious; sibling rivalry taken to an Australian limit. Yet they sparked a series of witty remarks off one another, kept a bunch of hardened reporters in fits of laughter, all of them hoping that these two might be a permanent fixture.

"We'll never be short of a story with these two around," someone said, but within a year they were back with Surrey, relearning their trade, winning championships but not worth a place in a struggling, colourless England team.

That autumn we voted Ben the Cricket Writers' Club Young Player of the Year and asked him to join our annual dinner for the presentation.

He was announced, stood up, bowed slightly, sauntered to the podium, accepted his prize and picked up the microphone to say: "There will only ever be one Hollioake name on this trophy." Once again laughter, a common ingredient in life when Ben was around.

There were signs in India and in New Zealand this winter that he might turn into the knight errant we had expected. His friends said he was growing up, that at 24 he might pull on the England Test sweater again and be a force during the coming World Cup.

Then, as the second Test between England and New Zealand at Wellington staggered to life after most of two days lost to rain, came the announcement that he had been killed.

What a shame, what a waste, what a shattering end to a beautiful dream.

Cricketers like Ben Hollioake are needed more than ever at the moment. County cricket has never attracted large crowds - apart from that brief period after the war when the country was so short of entertainment that every sporting venue was filled to over-flowing - but this era sees most grounds empty, memberships dropping and interest waning.

The degree towards which the game is being pushed to the outer limits can be seen by the government report which no longer counts cricket in the inflation rates because it is so insignificant.

Now comes further evidence. The agency which supplies newspapers, television and radio with county scores has sacked all the reporters who provide the description and news and will in future rely on summaries based on the scores.

Of course, that is bad news for my profession for young lads learned their trade and older men made their living as county cricket reporters. It is also a sign of the times. Cricket is no longer important, no more part of the national consciousness, as vital to our thinking, our way of life and our well-being as lacrosse, or backgammon or bingo.

Who is to blame? Too many people to list here. Schools which no longer treat games seriously, greater wealth so that the population can pick and choose its pastimes, an obsession with success. And the sudden disappearance of the star performer.

The tiny crowds at the Tests in New Zealand are not just an indication that there is less interest in that part of the world; it is also a sign that the England side contains no personalities.

Nasser Hussain's men are worthy Test players, fighters to a man, well-directed by an excellent coach. But, Flintoff apart, there is no one fit to aspire to a place in the list of must-see cricketers.

That is why the death of Ben Hollioake, in the same period that saw us bid farewell to the Queen Mother, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Spike Milligan and Dudley Moore, is such a tragedy. He left us at a time when he might have been the game's saviour. And there is no one likely to take his place.