Botham inspires Irani to make recovery

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Ronnie Irani said yesterday he has Ian Botham to thank for starting the new year with renewed hope. The Essex all-rounder plays his first match since 15 December today, when England must beat Zimbabwe in Harare to avoid losing the one-day series.

Mike Atherton, the England captain, plays in the match as well, despite his recent slump in batting form, with Graham Thorpe the batsman sacrificed to make way for both the all-rounders, Irani and Craig White.

Irani was in great pain from a back injury when England lost the opening one-day international by two wickets in Bulawayo 16 days ago. Within 24 hours he was being driven to Harare to have a bone scan and an injection into a "hot spot" in his lower back. After being told, initially, that rest was the only cure, Irani admitted he thought his tour was over, especially when White was drafted in as cover for him.

However, slowly at first, he began to test out his bowling in the nets with Botham in attendance for most of the time. Irani said: "Ian Botham has been inspirational. He had back problems in his career and he's helped me in slightly modifying my action. What I have tried to achieve is not to twist my back during my bowling action. If that happens I get pain, and in the first weeks of the tour I think I was trying too hard to impress.

"Working with Ian, and with David Lloyd and John Emburey, I have studied myself on video and now I feel great about an action in which I use my back and my physique to get pace and bounce. When I am bowling well I hit the seam regularly and in the nets it has been going so well that I have not felt I am putting any effort into it.

"Of course, I must now put everything into action during a match situation, but I am very confident and pleased to be back in the side."

Atherton, meanwhile, insisted yesterday that he had not considered dropping himself despite tour form which has yielded just 153 runs in 11 innings. Thorpe, of course, returned from a similar bad run with 50 not out on Sunday in the second Test. The Surrey left-hander has been very much a fixture in England's one-day side in recent years.

A curt "no" was all Atherton would say when asked if his sitting out the match was considered as an option and the skipper would not comment at all about England's batting order. "We know what it is going to be, but we are not saying and you will all have to wait and see," said Atherton, who in the first one-day international against Zimbabwe batted at No 3 but made only 23 from 77 balls.

In his last 17 one-day innings Atherton has passed 30 only twice and there is a school of thought that regards his studious style of batting as out of date in the world of 50-over internationals, especially now that the first 15-over fielding restrictions make quick scoring at the top of the order essential.

White and Irani will share fifth bowler duties, and England are in need of an uplifting New Year's Day performance. "We want to get back into the series in this game and then go on to win it 2-1 on Friday," Atherton said. "After that we look forward to New Zealand and on to the Ashes series against Australia next summer."

ENGLAND (for Second one-day international v Zimbabwe, Harare, today): N V Knight, A J Stewart (wkt), M A Atherton (capt), N Hussain, J P Crawley, C White, R C Irani, R D B Croft, D Gough, C E W Silverwood, A D Mullally.