A young life cruelly curtailed

Those of us who tuned in late on Friday evening in the hope of following England’s serene progress [in the second Test] in New Zealand’s green and pleasant land were confronted instead by images of a black Porsche, literally wrenched in two and cruelly smashed to pieces, and the knowledge of a young life curtailed. It was a profoundly shocking image. As Ben Hollioake’s family are left to cope with their tragic loss, so the rest of us, colleagues and friends, are left to our memories.

As captain of England, I recall handing a first one-day international cap to Ben on a glorious day at Lord’s in 1997. The series against Australia had already been won and it was a chance to let this precocious young cricketer, straight out of the Under-19s, show off his talent. I asked him if he fancied going in at No 3, and he shrugged and said, in his laconic way, he’d give it a go. Give it a go! Against Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, he scored a breathtaking 63 off 48 balls to justify the selectors’ judgement; it sounds violent but the drive for four off his third ball and the swept six into the Tavern Stand off Warne were launched with a languid ease and grace and it earned him the man-of-the-match award in his first game.

His brother Adam had already shot to prominence earlier in the summer, and in the spirit of fraternal competition he scored the winning runs in that game, as he had in the first two matches of the series. The Hollioakes were suddenly the talk of the town, part of a brighter future for English cricket, and Ben the new wunderkind of our game.

Ben’s initial success, and the manner of it, propelled him into the nation’s consciousness and brought immediate adulation, and all its attendant problems. Like others before and after him, he was labelled ‘The New Botham’ – that king of all albatrosses. And when you are young and lacking in knowledge and guidance, the rise to fame can be so difficult to handle.

The media’s voracious appetite for all things black and white, with no room for any shade of grey, creates personalities instead of people and caricatures instead of character. Suddenly expectation is upon you, a cloak that is so difficult to remove and a cup so difficult to fill.

There was the odd glimpse of brilliance afterwards. Two man-of-the-match awards in one-day finals for Surrey reinforced the initial belief that he had the temperament to match the big occasion, and he did become the youngest player since Brian Close in 1949 to win a Test cap for England. Mostly, though, after the initial burst, the limelight and success evaded him: he was ill-suited to the backwaters and daily grind of county cricket and the expectation went largely unfulfilled. We are left wondering only what might have been.

For there is no doubting the talent was there. His batting looked casual, and occasionally was casual, but he had a grace and ease of movement and time to play, visited upon only the lucky few. His loose, long limbs enabled him to bowl without apparent effort – quickish with a hint of away swing.

His athleticism was ready-made for the modern game; a captain would always send him to patrol the most important parts of the outfield. He had got back into the one-day international team, and was pushing hard for a place in the World Cup squad. There was still plenty of time.

Yesterday Nasser Hussain was right to emphasise the futility of the game at such a time. Understandably, in the aftermath of Ben’s death, there will be those who will overplay his talent and achievements, but what does that, or the reality, matter? What is undeniable, and ultimately more important, is the affection with which he was held by everyone who shared the Surrey and England dressing-rooms with him. Remarkably, only five years after Graham Kersey’s death in a road accident, Surrey have lost another.

It is difficult to imagine that he and Adam were brothers, so different were they in character, build and temperament. Adam, short and pugnacious, very physical and fiercely committed – every inch the street fighter. Ben, tall and languid, seemingly at ease with the world and his place in it – not cerebral but quick to smile and easy to laugh. He really was a player you wanted to see succeed, and I cannot imagine that he would have inspired jealousy anywhere within the game. He could be infuriating on the field, but it was quickly forgiven.

Along with his brother, he was part of the influx of Australian-born cricketers who came to England throughout the 1990s. With Ben it was easy to see the influence of both his English roots and the land of his birth; most at home in the outdoors and on the beaches of Perth, but without the abrasiveness that characterises so many of his countrymen. Both Australia, where his family is, and England, his adopted home, will feel his loss keenly.

It is in the dazzling light of youth, rather than the decay of old age, that we’ll always remember Ben – but that does not make it any easier to bear. Daily Telegraph, 23 March 2002