On March 23 2002, Ben Hollioake was killed in a car accident in Perth, Australia. The death of the Surrey and England all-rounder, who had played two Tests and 20 one-day internationals, prompted an outpouring of grief from the worldwide cricket community. Two decades on, Richard Spiller reflects on Ben’s life
Memories of Ben Hollioake evoke a mixture of joy and sadness – the 20th anniversary of his death is like a stab to an old wound.
Just type in his name to any search engine and, after the countless obituaries, you will find footage of his debut innings of 63 for England against Australia at Lord’s in 1997, aged just 19. The tyro treated Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, who had maintained such a hold over his colleagues for five years and would do so for almost another decade, with an elegant disdain that left the crowd gasping. The usually miserly McGrath was repeatedly hammered down the ground, while Warne found himself being swung away into the cheering crowd off one knee.
That performance set an almost impossibly high bar, yet he pushed it up a notch or two a few weeks later in despatching Kent all round the same ground while making 98 in the Benson & Hedges Cup final. It was perhaps too much for any young player to live up to, especially during the constant search in English cricket for the next Ian Botham, and while he did not scale those heights again in England colours, there were plenty of moments over the next few years to warm the hearts of the Oval faithful as Ben became an integral part of the all-conquering Surrey side.
The joy of watching Ben Hollioake in full flight is hard to represent in figures. His silky batting, capable of despatching the ball to the boundary with seemingly minimal effort, was twinned with an ability to gain sharp movement off the seam at a lively pace, although his bowling was prone to inconsistency. But it was the overall package that made him “the most naturally gifted cricketer I ever played alongside,” according to Alec Stewart, his partner in those two breakthrough innings at Lord’s.
The smile and relaxed demeanour made Hollioake a natural favourite of youngsters and his laconic drawl proved a hit with the media. There was no pretence, no mask for the outside world, just an extension of the personality which made him the most popular of team-mates. Yet underneath it all he shared the same tungsten qualities more obvious in older brother Adam, the pair becoming only the third set of siblings to play Test cricket for England when they stepped onto the field together at Trent Bridge in that 1997 summer, by which time McGrath, Warne et al had reaffirmed Australian dominance.
Cricket could never be quite as easy as Ben made it look and over the next three-and-a-half years his international appearances were limited by inconsistent form and selectors who switched between wanting to invest in talent and picking on performance alone. It meant just two Tests and 20 ODI appearances in all, yet there still seemed to be so much to come.
Ben died a year before the first T20 competition was inaugurated in England and it’s impossible to believe that he would not have revelled in front of packed crowds on sunny evenings at The Oval and around the world.
Rather than being governed by the expectations of others, a trap into which so many exciting young sportsmen have fallen, Ben was determined to live by his own rules and philosophy, so who knows which direction his career might have taken.
Losing his Surrey place during a lacklustre season in 2000 – few players are not omitted at some stage – drew the right response and no one who witnessed his commanding 118 in the final Championship match of the following season, where champions Yorkshire were hammered by an innings, doubted that maturity was now being added to his elegance and periodic audacity.
That ability to shine on the big occasion had not lessened, Surrey’s return to Lord’s in the 2001 Benson & Hedges Cup final seeing them beat Gloucestershire by 47 runs, led by Ben’s 73 from 76 balls to collect another gold award. That helped to earn a return to the England ODI side and, all things being equal, he would surely have made the following year’s World Cup squad.
His death was announced during England’s Test against New Zealand in Wellington, the devastation of his England colleagues as raw as that of the Surrey squad, who rapidly headed to Perth to join Adam and his family in mourning. The county had lost wicketkeeper Graham Kersey five years earlier in similarly tragic circumstances and the same would happen again 10 years later when Tom Maynard died. All are celebrated at the Kia Oval in different manners.
In the wake of Ben’s death, the Hollioake family established a fund to raise money for CHASE hospice care for children, while a scholarship was set up to benefit the county’s developing cricketers, and the player of the tournament at the Hong Kong Sixes is named in his memory.
Perhaps it is the Ben Hollioake Learning Centre, in the JM Finn Stand at The Oval, which stands out as Ben’s greatest legacy, each year benefiting thousands of children from different backgrounds and helping them to learn about both cricket and life, two things that Ben seemed to take in his stride with ease.