John Hollioake on the joys and sorrows of raising two cricketers | Cricket

“Everything was a battle royal,” says John Hollioake, recalling his two sons, Adam and Ben, going hell for leather at the family home in Melbourne. “They’d play every sport known to man. They used to fight like hell, even in the kitchen. They had the competitiveness I had in spades. I just wasn’t bloody good enough to make the most of it.”

Windows were broken, ornaments smashed, some of which John and his wife Daria have kept to this day as mementos of a time when their gifted young children were exploring how far their talent could take them.

By the summer of 1997 they would become the first pair of brothers to make their Test debuts together in the 20th century, representing England against the country of their birth. Adam was 25, Ben, at 19 years and 269 days, was England’s youngest male Test cricketer since Brian Close in 1949, capping a landmark summer which saw him heralded as the new golden boy of English cricket.

Adam and Ben collect their England caps from captain Mike Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1997.
Adam and Ben collect their England caps from captain Mike Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1997. Photograph: Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

It wasn’t clear, however, that cricket would be their chosen path as they terrorised the family home as kids. Adam was a talented rugby and hockey player, while Ben excelled at pretty much any sport he turned his hand to. “Whether they were going to play cricket or not, I couldn’t have told you. They could have played anything.”

John’s work as an engineer took him all over the world, and it was while living in Hong Kong that he first became aware of Adam’s potential as a cricketer. “I’d given up cricket because I couldn’t afford the time to play properly, the way I wanted to play, but when we got to Hong Kong I realised we weren’t going to survive there without a club. I started doing a bit of coaching and I noticed Adam could play a bit. He had a beautiful bowling action. He used to bowl at me in the nets and he was a Mike Holding lookalike.

“Once he came over to me and said, ‘I’ve been bowling at that boring old fart’. ‘Which boring old fart?’ He pointed him out. ‘You mean Geoffrey Boycott?’. He said: ‘Is that Geoffrey Boycott?! I’ve been bowling at him the whole session and he didn’t hit me off the square.’ Boycott was on his way to Sydney to play grade cricket. Adam was a good bowler at 12.”

The future England cricketers with their father John.
The future England cricketers with their father John.

Ben, meanwhile, was wreaking havoc. When John’s work took him from Hong Kong to the UK and then to Norway, he decided to enrol his youngest son as a boarder at Barrow Hills in Surrey. “I said I can’t take this kid to Norway, he’ll destroy something. Ben was a livewire. He was a completely different kettle of fish. In Hong Kong he got into trouble all over the place. He was a real handful and we left him in England.

“We’d only been in Norway about a week when we had a call saying Ben was in trouble. They said, ‘Well, he’s got a fantastic arm. He’s just thrown a cricket ball through a stained glass window in the main hall, about 50 feet up’. I asked Ben what he did it for. He said there was a bird trapped in there and he wanted to free it.”

When John was transferred to Sydney, nine-year-old Ben started to play his first organised cricket, taking nine for 13 including a hat-trick in his first match for Gladesville. “This was an under-12s game,” says John. “I didn’t really have to do much with Ben in terms of coaching. He was a natural. As a batsman Adam wanted to be more correct. With Ben it was ‘don’t touch this’, and the same with his bowling. Just let this kid go.”

Adam had decided to stay in the UK when his family returned to Australia, continuing his education at St George’s College and eventually earning a contract with Surrey in 1991. But with first-team opportunities hard to come by and his role unclear, the idea of being a professional cricketer didn’t sit easily with him.

“Adam had a magnificent action until he joined Surrey,” says John. “Geoff Arnold [Surrey’s bowling coach] was a fantastic bowler, the type of bowler you’d love your kid to be. But Adam was never going to be a Geoff Arnold, a workhorse, and Geoff tried to make Adam a Geoff Arnold. He ended up getting stress fractures and Adam had to change his action completely. I have nothing against Geoff, but I regret not telling him to leave him alone. He had natural ability. Adam’s batting fell away, too, and he had a bit of a battle to come back into things.”

In 1992, while stationed in Libya, John received a call from Adam saying he was considering quitting cricket. “I thought he was going to give it away and I couldn’t bear it. What the hell’s the kid going to do? I said, ‘I’m not going to let you give up, you’ve got a contract there’. He needed someone to tell him to get his act together. I wouldn’t have done that in a million years with Ben. He could handle anything.”

In June 1993, while travelling by boat from Libya to England, John flicked on the radio to hear how Adam had fared on his first-class debut. “I was listening to the news and they got to county cricket. Surrey versus Derbyshire, Adam Hollioake 123. What!? He’d come in at No7.”

By the summer of 1995, Adam was deputising as captain in the absence of Alec Stewart, and the following season he was joined in the Surrey side by his younger brother, who had been fast-tracked into the first team after a handful of appearances for the second XI.

As Adam’s career progressed at pace, Ben continued to track him. In August 1996, Adam made his ODI debut, taking 4-23 against Pakistan at Edgbaston and then 4-45 against the same opposition the following day at Trent Bridge. By May the next year, they were England teammates, Ben receiving a call-up for the ODI series against Australia despite having only made five first-class appearances. Even his older brother wasn’t convinced he was ready for the step up.

Adam Hollioake appeals for a wicket on his ODI debut in 1996.
Adam Hollioake appeals for a wicket on his ODI debut in 1996. Photograph: PA Images

“David Graveney [England’s chairman of selectors] rang me and said, ‘We’re going to pick your brother, what do you think? Is he ready?’” says Adam. “And I was like, ‘No, I don’t, but with him you never know’, because that’s the way he was. I knew he was going to be good enough, but I didn’t think he had much behind him to recover if things went wrong. They picked him but I didn’t think they were going to play him. Then when we won the series after two games, they decided to put him in at No3 at Lord’s, almost in a pinch-hitting role.”

Six overs into England’s reply to Australia’s 269, Ben walked out to the middle. His third delivery went straight back past Glenn McGrath before the bowler could even react. He swept Shane Warne for six, languidly deposited McGrath over his head for another boundary and brought up his half-century – only the second of his professional career – at better than a run-a-ball. When he departed for a 48-ball 63, the Lord’s crowd rose to acknowledge the arrival of a new star.

“I put it up there with my favourite moments in my career,” says Adam. “I didn’t come out on the balcony when he first went out to bat because I was nervous, I just didn’t want him to get out for a duck. I still wasn’t sure if he was ready. But then he started opening up and when he got to about 20 I thought, ‘Well, even if he gets out now, he’s done more than anyone could have expected at his age’. To be able to sit there and enjoy the next 40 runs of carnage was just awesome.

“I was gobsmacked, in awe of how unfazed by the situation he was. He was batting as if it was me and him having a game in the backyard. It just so happened to be against two of the best bowlers of all-time. I knew he could play but I’d be lying if I said I thought a 19-year-old could ever do that to Warne and McGrath. As for Ben, I don’t think anything took him by surprise.”

Seven weeks later the Hollioakes were back at Lord’s, Adam captaining Surrey to victory over Kent in the Benson & Hedges Cup final and Ben picking up the player of the match award for an effortless 98 from 112 balls. Adam dedicated the win to Graham Kersey, Surrey’s young wicketkeeper who had died in a car crash in Australia earlier that year.

Ben and Adam join Alec Stewartto celebrate winning the B&H trophy at Lord’s in 1997.
Ben and Adam join Alec Stewart
to celebrate winning the B&H trophy at Lord’s in 1997.
Photograph: Ben Radford/Getty Images

“It might be just because we enjoyed the summer so much,” recalls Adam, “but it seemed like every day was sunny that summer. My brother doing so well in those two Lord’s games will stick with me forever.”

By early August, the brothers were Test cricketers, receiving their caps from Mike Atherton on the Trent Bridge outfield before the fifth Ashes Test. John was there to witness the moment. “I was watching Atherton give Adam and Ben their caps, and he pointed me out in the crowd. Imagine that – the captain of England pointing out a parent in the stand. That was one of the biggest thrills of my life.”

Adam’s time in the Test side was brief but he built a reputation as one of the game’s most innovative and aggressive captains, leading Surrey to three Championship titles, five limited-overs trophies and being named England’s ODI skipper, guiding his country to Champions Trophy glory in Sharjah in December 1997.

Ben’s progress was less smooth after his breakthrough summer. He struggled for runs at county level and appeared only fleetingly for England, playing his second and final Test match against Sri Lanka in 1998.

“Everyone knew how good he was, you don’t just lose that,” says Adam. “But there was a feeling that he had to learn the game, to learn the discipline of being a professional cricketer every day, those lessons that most people when they get picked to play for England have learnt already. I felt like he’d done that when he got picked again [for the ODI team in 2001] and he was just starting to show that, on top of his obvious talent, he was becoming a professional who could turn in those performances every day.”

Tragically, Ben never had the opportunity to fulfil his potential. On March 23, 2002, driving home from a dinner with his family, at the end of a winter spent touring with England, his Porsche 924 came off a ramp on a Perth expressway and hit a brick wall. Aged 24 and 132 days, no England Test cricketer has died so young.

“I have thousands of videos of Ben, but I hardly watch them,” says John. “My wife watches them all the time but I can’t do it. When Ben first passed away, I used to dream every night about his life until the point when he died. Then one night I went to the tree where his memorial is and Ben said to me, ‘Dad, time to move on, let me go.’ I’ve never had a dream like that since, but I still haven’t let him go.

“We’ve still got his ashes. If we do throw them it will be at The Oval, they’re not going anywhere else, but I can’t do it. I said to Daria the other day, ‘Are we holding him up?’. She can’t let go either.”

Adam continued to captain Surrey after his brother’s death but never felt the same spark on the cricket field. He retired from the game in 2004 – making a brief return with Essex in 2007 – and has since tried his hand at boxing, MMA fighting and filled a variety of coaching roles in cricket.

Adam Hollioake with his parents John and Daria and his sister Eboni at the Oval in 2005.
Adam Hollioake with his parents John and Daria and his sister Eboni at the Oval in 2005. Photograph: Shutterstock

“Adam’s done lots of bits and pieces since retiring but never really gone through with anything,” says John. “I maybe put it down to Ben’s passing. The way he reacted to Ben’s death is indicative of how impulsive he is. He played a wonderful innings in one of his last games but he said it wasn’t him batting out there. At the end of his career I think he felt he was letting people down because his captaincy was waning and he wasn’t enjoying himself. He told me that every time he threw the ball to second slip or gully he thought of Ben, and it was too much for him.

“Everyone takes Adam as a hard customer and he comes across that way, but inside there’s a gentle soul. I think that’s why he was a good captain – he takes pride in the way he treats people and I’m proud of him for that. He acts the tough nut, with his boxing and that sort of stuff, but he’s not underneath, I don’t think. Ben was tough as nails and you never knew it because he’d just give you a grin. With Adam it ate away, and I’m pretty sure it’s eating away now.”

Whether Ben would have been able to consistently produce the type of performances he gave the world a tantalising glimpse of is one of English cricket’s great “what ifs”. His overall career record is modest but, even before his death, there was the sense that he was the type of mercurial player who would be remembered for moments rather than statistics, like that summer’s day at Lord’s in 1997 when he treated facing McGrath and Warne like a game of backyard cricket with his brother.

The new issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly is out now.
The new issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly is out now.

“If there was nothing on the game, you might not see Ben,” says John. “‘Where’s Ben gone? Not in the room. He was so laidback and nothing ever worried him – he played innings where people were frustrated like hell with him. But you just had to know the kid. It took a lot to get him up. With Ben you knew that if there was something on the game, there was no way he was going to let you down. I was proud of that.”

This article is from a new series in Wisden Cricket Monthly that explores what it is like to be the parent of a top-level cricketer. The new issue of WCM is available now and Guardian readers can buy three digital issues of the magazine for just £2.49 or three print issues for just £5.99.

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