I can honestly say that no piece of sporting news has given me more pleasure during the long, cricket-free winter months than the return of James Hockley to Kent colours.
It all dates back to 2000, the worst season I had ever endured as a Kent supporter, as an injury ravaged squad sneaked away from deserved relegation only in the last game, and Mr Hockley singularly failed to nail down a first team spot. Luckily in what had become a play-off to avoid the drop on the last day of the season, Kent beat Worcestershire, who even with Glenn McGrath in their side - at that point comfortably the best seam bowler in the world - were sent down instead.
This match was no classic. In fact, I suspect that there is only one member of either side who can remember anything more about it than that it happened. At one point, the interchangeable Sky commentator (Bob Willis? Paul Allott? Graham ‘Foxy’ Fowler? Who can tell?) did indeed say, “he’ll remember that all his life”, the Sky-box never a place in which to fear the cliché. But they had an excuse, you see, as Hockley, 21 at the time, had just lent into a pitched up delivery from McGrath and sent it comfortably past cover point for four vital runs.
Australian journalist Gideon Haigh once observed that he took more pleasure from a well timed cover drive than Mark Waugh, noting that the languid Australian number five expected to score runs, while for him there was a pleasing element of surprise. I suspect that the same applied with James Hockley’s cover drive. Not even a first team regular and facing the most skilful fast bowler of them all? He can’t have expected to do well. But that cover drive was the only evidence of cricketing genius in the entire match. Of course he remembers it.
Alas, this single shot is the only memory I have of his entire county career. He managed just one decent first-class score in Kent colours (although he did manage a century in a one day game), and when Kent chose not to renew his contract at the end of the 2002 season, he retired with an average below twenty.
Cricket in England is often ridiculed for the ease with which players with a palpable lack of the necessary talent wangle temporary passes on the professional circuit; we never have quite shaken off the crazed notion of the noble amateur. “On coming down from Oxford, (he looked) for some walk in life that would ensure the three squares a day and give him time to play a bit of county cricket”, was how PG Wodehouse put it. County members have endured swathes of these players, sons of high profile committee members, perhaps, or old boys from Eton, and most of us have visibly aged as a result.
But, the reason I’m glad to see James Hockley back is that he was different. He actually had the required talent, as he showed when asked to face down Australia’s leading strike bowler.
It’s just that when asked to use it, he failed, and he was dropped, and then (having biffed some poor second team attack for another frightening hundred) he came back to the first team, and failed again, and was dropped again. After his retirement, Hockley drifted into Kent League cricket and frightened plenty of attacks there too. He was good. But he wasn’t quite good enough.
It’s a fact many sportsmen eventually have to accept. You play for the school team, and are the best. Then the county juniors, and are the best. Then the county seconds, and you’re still the best. Then the first team selects you, and you’re the worst. Maybe you’re unlucky, maybe you lack talent. But, one meeting with the chairman of selectors later, and you’re signing up for a PGCE and training to be a PE teacher.
Failure in sport, for anyone who seeks to play at the highest level they can, is so obviously the norm that I sometimes wonder why anyone bothers. Hockley must look back at his single half centuries and think, “if only I’d not wafted at a wide one, I’d have made a hundred”.
But crisis for Kent, who actually did get relegated for the first time in 2008, changed that. No money and no players, these were the crucial variables. The credit crunch became the banking crisis, and this became a recession, and the building firm due to develop the ground went bust. Kent’s rising star Neil Dexter walked out, leaving Kent in a state of mild panic - they had no spare batsmen at all. Someone spoke to someone else, address books were skimmed, memories consulted. And James Hockley had given up teaching and was an ‘ex-player’ no more.
This really isn’t supposed to happen. Sport is supposed to be ruthless - just look at Arsene Wenger, who won’t even let his players flavour their food. In such an environment, second chances, we’re told, never come.
So, this romantic return is a victory for every fan who’s ever hoped that someone would pop down from the dressing room and say, ‘awfully sorry, old chap, I know its your day off work, but we’re a man down today, would you mind putting some whites on and batting at seven?’
No doubt in his first stab at professional sport he was ambitious and determined. But, now, having tasted real life, Hockley can surely not believe his luck. Now aged 30, he’s getting another stab at living true his childhood dream. If he does score that elusive first-class hundred, I shall rejoice.