Hooksey’s clearin’ pickets [David Hookes Memorial edition]

I have deliberately left this email until a little while after the tragic death and most excellent funeral of David Hookes.

I don’t wish to make comment about the nature of his death or even necessarily to pay tribute to the man. There is plenty of other reading material along those lines. Save to say that it is sad and tragic for anyone to die under those circumstances, at such a young age.

When Hookes first died, and the tributes started pouring in, I found it hard to reconcile the term “cricketing legend” (and others) with what could be judged a rather ordinary Test record:

Matches: 23; Innings: 41 innings (3 not out); 1306 runs at 34.36; 1 century and 8 half centuries.

I read quite a few articles about Hookes, some of them documenting his achievements and one in particular, suggested Hookes was treated “shabbily” by selectors and had deserved to play more for Australia. Having looked into it, I am inclined to agree.

Cricket’s first doyen of media, the great Neville Cardus, once said that assessing the career of Trumper on statistics alone was very much like measuring the worth of a Beethoven symphony by counting the notes on the score. Or something like that. Hookes was no Trumper but I would suggest that those words apply in some way to David Hookes. Hookes’ career was not one of sustained and consistent brilliance. He was more typified by moments of outrageous brilliance.

Hookes was a “stand and deliver” player, not known for his great footwork but with a brilliant eye and wonderful timing. His approach was similar to Gilchrist, and like Gilchrist, he seemed far more interested in hitting the ball hard and often, rather than on protecting his average (I should clarify that I think Gilchrist is a few levels above Hookes – as Gillie does sport a rather impressive average).

Here are some of Hookes’ highlights:

Five first class centuries in six innings leading up to his selection in the Centenary Test in 1977.

Five fours from consecutive balls off one Tony Greig over in that match created the legend. Hookes reached his half century from the fourth of those boundaries. Not many people are unaware of that event. Tony Greig is probably the most aware of it.

In 1982, Hookes scored the fastest first class century ever scored in Australia (from 34 balls). It is probably the fastest “genuine” first class century ever, disregarding contrived efforts.

Hookes still holds record for the Australian 4th wicket partnership in first class cricket. It is an unbeaten 462* shared with Wayne Phillips against Tasmania at Adelaide in 1986/87. This was the all-wicket record until the Waughs edged past in December 1990.

During that partnership, Hookes racked up his highest first class score – 306 not out.

Hookes scored 143 not out against Sri Lanka (his only Test century), in Sri Lanka, including a century in a session. He was vice captain to Greg Chappell for that match.

So why did Hookes play just 23 Tests in over 8 years between 1977 and 1985?

The first reason is obvious: World Series Cricket (WSC). The career of Hookes exactly corresponded with a tumultuous period of Australian cricket – Hookes’ very first Test was the much celebrated Centenary Test. The legend of David Hookes started there. Yet, less then twelve months later, the cricket world was in upheaval and turmoil with the advent of WSC. Hookes was unavailable for Tests for two years during his WSC involvement. During that time he played 12 “Super Tests” and scored 770 runs at 38.50 against the West Indies and Rest of the World Teams. He scored two centuries and six fifties. His results were comparable to that of his Test career but he was the second best performed of the Australian batsmen who played more than five Super Tests. It should also be remember that he was facing bowling of a very high standard, with no reprieve from the pace of: Procter, Imran Khan, Le Roux, Holding, Garner, Roberts and King.

The several years that followed the reconciliation between Packer’s WSC and establishment cricket were not harmonious. It was not a settled time to be building a career as a Test batsman. It’s something I hadn’t given much thought to previously, but the coming of peace saw fierce competition for positions, particularly in the middle order. Establishment cricket had managed to
find two world class batsmen in Border and Hughes and Yallop was also of Test standard. WSC had names such as Greg Chappell, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and David Hookes. And just four batting positions available (not counting the openers).

Over the next few years, Greg Chappell, Hughes and Border were rightly automatic selections when they were available. In the first Test where players from both camps were available, Hookes gained the nod for the other spot, against the West Indies. Australia was flogged, Hookes scored 43 and 37 and was dropped. Most of the other batsmen made runs except for Border who made single figures on both innings – but he retained his place. Why?

The issues of selection are complex – and I don’t understand them all. And certainly don’t understand all of the political forces that were at work. Was there an expectation that the selectors should choose non-WSC players where possible (as a reward for loyalty)? However, the perception of favouritism had to be avoided – so WSC players had to be selected. That aside, Australian cricket was desperate for success – WSC had injected new life into cricket and the hastily organised 3 Test series against the West Indies and England were designed to take advantage of that. And what better way than to have a winning team. It seems that “knee jerk” reactions often occur when looking for “instant success” in such environments. (And I can assure you that instant success was not going to happen against that mighty West Indian team.)

And some players are persisted with through the hard times more than others. Benaud was one. Steve Waugh was another. Part of the selectors job is to identify players who “have what it takes”. That includes attitude, maturity, technique and the “x factor”. Border clearly had what it takes – he was a fighter with immense ability who held his wicket preciously. Perhaps Hookes’
approach did not convey the same message.

Hookes was dumped for none other than Peter Toohey (who had played all of the previous Test series), who was dumped for Ian Chappell. Get the picture? Doug Walters didn’t even come back into the team until the next summer.

Hookes did not play for the rest of that summer. He toured Pakistan and when Ian Chappell finally retired, Hookes got the nod for the First Test, made a pair and was dropped. Yallop who also came into the team in the 1st Test made 172 in the 2nd and in doing so, I believe, gave himself the edge over Hookes for some time.

Hookes didn’t wear the baggy green again for over two and half years. He played the full 1982-83 Ashes series and averaged 49 with 4 fifties. He toured Sri Lanka immediately after and scored 143 not out in the only Test and was vice captain to Chappell. One would have thought that he might have cemented his place in the team at that point. But apparently not.

Hookes found himself dropped again next summer, Greg Chappell’s last summer, with the return of Kim Hughes. Yallop held his spot and had a famous series including 268 in Melbourne. All of the batsmen scored heavily and there was no way back for Hookes.

Hookes took Chappell’s place for the tour of the West Indies at the end of the 1983-84 season. He played all the Tests but averaged just 25. However, that was the second best effort behind Border, who had an heroic series.

Nonetheless, Hookes found himself dropped for the fourth time. He missed the entire return series against the West Indies in 1984-85. As Australia was destroyed and Kim Hughes self destructed, it is hard to see how Hookes wasn’t given an opportunity for the whole series. The resignation of Kim Hughes brings to my mind the media attention given to the question of his replacement. There was massive focus on whether the job would go to Border or to Hookes. I recall, Richie Benaud made the point at the time when asked to comment and he simply said “The last time I looked, David Hookes was not in the team so how can he vice captain?”. Very Richie. At the time I thought nothing more about it – Richie was always right, after all.

I guess as time has gone by I have regarded that media beat up as some sort of Telegraph stunt to sell newspapers. A bit like the “Save Steve Waugh” campaign of a couple of summers ago. But maybe the notion of Hookes being captain was not so silly. He had only been out of the team for 2 Tests. He had been vice captain last time he had played – and with Border in that team. And no doubt, he would have been a good leader. Perhaps it was a veiled drive just to get
Hookes into the team. Whatever the case, Richie was right and Border was captain for the next 93 Tests.

Hookes received his final recall in the 1985-86 summer. Australian cricket was in the doldrums. We were thrashed by NZ, sporting a rampant Hadlee and we struggled to hold India to a 0-0 draw. Hookes was given 4 Tests, didn’t pass 42 and was dropped for the final time. His last Test was the Boxing Day Test of 1985, the 2nd Test against India. Coincidentally, it was the first Test
of Stephen Roger Waugh. Now, I did not know that the Test careers of Steve Waugh and David Hookes coincided!

Hookes was a player of great talent who probably should have scored more runs and had a higher average. Perhaps the selectors could have been more patient with him and given him more chances to deliver. Perhaps Hookes could have been more circumspect at times. And no doubt Hookes played at a difficult time in Australian cricket for several reasons.

Perhaps it was for the way he lived and that he batted that Hookes was loved by the people. Perhaps the line dedicated to Hookes in the WSC promotional jingle “Come On Aussie, Come On” says it all: ‘Hookey’s clearin’ pickets” (all Dougie was doing was “chewin’ gum!”).

It is a fact that Hookes died a legend – stats don’t determine that. The outpouring of emotion and grief over Hookes’ death would indicate his regard in the eyes of the Australian people.

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