This was written on the tenth anniversary of the death of Ben Hollioake, the youngest English Test cricketer ever to die.
Ten years ago this evening, during the morning session of the third day of a Test match between New Zealand and England in Wellington, I was standing in my kitchen listening to Test Match Special when Christopher Martin-Jenkins announced that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.
English cricket seemed a quiet, stunned place for a long time afterwards.
As the superb Barney Ronay has recently written, in the mind’s eye Ben Hollioake will always be the charmingly insouciant kid who effortlessly took the attack to Steve Waugh’s Australians in 1997. However, he then struggled to define a place for himself in an England team which still laboured in the shadow of years of failure, and his memory captures a time, now easily forgotten, when Australia seemed omnipotent and any brief shaft of light amid the gloom was seized upon and grasped for more than it was perhaps worth.
In the last summer of his life I saw Ben Hollioake play in a one-day international against Australia at Bristol. It was Owais Shah’s debut and he partnered Hollioake to a coruscatingly promising unbroken stand of 70 at the end of the England innings, before, as usual, Australia took the game away from them through a century of crushing, inviolable certainty by Ricky Ponting.
But there were fragile shafts of hope. It was easy, too easy, to find yourself wondering what Hollioake might achieve if he could ever find consistency.
If he had lived, Ben Hollioake would now be thirty-four. His career would probably be winding down, if it hadn’t long been lost to the winds of the off-field world and its temptations. It’s impossible to know what he might have achieved, but, had he lived to reach the latter years of the Fletcher era and experience the captaincy of Michael Vaughan, he might just have been among the England players who celebrated in Trafalgar Square on 13th September 2005.
And if he hadn’t, there’s a stronger likelihood that he would have formed part of the England one-day side for many a year. A good few of the thousands of excellent runs made by a man who also made his debut for England in the summer of 2001, Paul Collingwood, might instead have been scored by Ben Hollioake.
But if all else had failed, there does seem to be one near-certainty. Unless something very strange and unforeseen had happened, Ben Hollioake would have become one of the very best Twenty20 players in the world. The game might have been invented for him, with his easy yet powerful strokeplay, effortlessly fast bowling and athletic fielding. Success with Surrey, and for England, and the riches of the IPL would surely have been his.
Of course, given the fragile, if massive, nature of his talent, all the promise may simply have faded. But, for an England fan of a certain vintage, Ben Hollioake, and the icy suddenness of his passing, represented the abrupt death of a little bit of hope.
As The Guardian headlined its report of his funeral:
‘So long, Benny boy, you were special’.
Different Shades of Green, 23rd March 2012