Cork on the fast track for England

Derek Pringle on the bowler who has come a long way in a short time
It is not known whether Dominic Cork has read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. If he has, he would know that it is impossible to compress time unless travelling somewhere near the speed of light. And yet in just under a year he has done what most great Test bowlers take three or more to achieve: going from a mere Test hopeful to England's premier bowler, and the cutting edge of their attack.

In fact, this time last year, Cork, now fast approaching 25, had not even made his Test debut, a lacklustre Texaco series delaying his selection until the second Test, when his 7 for 53 shook Lord's and the West Indies to level the series.

A hat-trick at Old Trafford in the fourth Test added to the impact, again helping England to draw level after the debacle at Edgbaston. In the end, the series petered out, drawn at two apiece, though Cork, in his first serious international outing, had taken 26 wickets in five Tests.

It was an impressive strike rate and at last, it seemed, England had found themselves the kind of bowler they had lacked since the Botham-Willis era: an out and out wicket-taker whose self-confidence, like Botham's, was not compromised by the shortcomings of the team or the state of the game.

However, there is always the danger that the initial impact can be too powerful, elevating the expectations of both team-mates and public beyond a realistic ceiling, which needs to be pushed gradually higher by small rather than large increments. Had it then all happened a bit too quickly and come (a pair of sore knees excepted) a bit too easily. More poignantly, could it be maintained against a cricketing world a year older, and therefore wiser, to his antics?

"I don't know really," Cork said as he prepared for the Test against India. "It's a pace of change I don't mind, especially as all I've ever dreamed of doing is playing for England. I still can't really believe how good it's gone for me this last year.

"Actually, to tell the truth, I used to feel quite frustrated that I'd not been given a chance before. But I wouldn't change that now and I'm glad I went on four A-team tours first, and was kept back. I was a little bit too vocal when I first started and I needed to work on my game both mentally and physically. That experience, especially the tours to India and South Africa, definitely helped mature me. Without them, I may not have had the impact I've had so far."

Such admissions undoubtedly speak volumes for the wisdom of having such tours, but keeping players back appears to be something unique to English cricket. Mind you, even the Indian selectors baulked once, deciding not to send a 15-year-old Sachin Tendulkar to face the West Indies' quicks in 1988. Instead they waited a year and sent him to face Pakistan's instead.

Seven years on, it is Tendulkar's duel with Cork that is likely to be the main plot of the series. A delicious skirmish whose potential to enthrall was seen in embryo during the first one-day match at The Oval, where the Indian basically hit Cork out of the attack, taking 12 off Cork's opening over.

But even if the balance of power once again shifts Cork's way, the temptation for Michael Atherton to over-bowl him will be overwhelming, as it was in South Africa where Cork finished the series 85 overs to the good over the next man. It was far from ideal for someone with a history of knee trouble, the recurrence of which caused him to miss England's World Cup quarter-final.

"Actually, I'm the worst one for it. I'm always wanting just one more over [another trait he shares with Botham]. I suppose it's a downfall but, the way I look at it, if I'm not bowling I can't be taking wickets. And whether I'm playing for England or for Derbyshire I want to take wickets, though I'm aware that just as the overs mount up so does the likelihood of injury.

"Perhaps just saying 'No' is something I've got to learn to do. Mind you, cutting down," he says with all the matter-of-factness of a 60-a- day smoker, "is not the only answer. When I've got time, I'm busy trying to build up my quadriceps muscles."

There has been talk, for some time now, of a fierce rivalry between him and Darren Gough. But this is promptly dismissed as a figment of media imagination, although there is a school of thought not a million miles from the dressing-room that believes it lies at the root of Gough's problems since losing his top dog tag to Cork.

Unlike Gough, who wants to be universally liked, Cork tries to get under the skin of an opponent and his on-field histrionics, which include an appeal so theatrical it would shame a professional limbo dancer, border on the farcical. So much so that you feel he is in danger of not only alienating the audience but the umpire, too.

"I've always been an aggressive type of person on the pitch, though hopefully off the pitch I'm not. I'm out there to do a job and I enjoy giving batsmen the stare. I also enjoy appealing. If I've got a chance of getting a wicket I'll try to put as much into my appeal as possible.

"The whole aggression thing is definitely something that gets me going and keeps me turned on. It helps me keep my concentration up. It's the way I play and what has so far brought me success."

Successful formula or not, Cork is not entirely happy with his form since the World Cup, and he has been busy tinkering and trying out new deliveries.

"I've had a chat with Dean Jones, our new skipper at Derby, talking about what line to bowl and what fields to set to the Indians if the ball swings. At the end of the day, I can't be too over-attacking against these boys by trying to bowl that magic delivery that pitches middle and leg and hits off. As I found out at The Oval, it just doesn't work.

"But I'm working on different things, like improving my inswinger and using the crease more. Hopefully, if they come off, they'll increase my chance of getting wickets. Hopefully."