Cricket: A hybrid takes root

Stephen Fay watches a swing bowler blend two different worlds; Born in Britain but raised in Australia, Mullally finally finds himself at home in Stewart's new model army
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The Independent Online
HERE IS a cautionary tale about an intriguing hybrid that looks like a string bean. The name is Alan Mullally, born in Southend-on-Sea in 1969 and nurtured in Perth in Western Australia.

This Mullally was a schoolboy cricketer for his adopted country and here he is in Brisbane making his debut against the country of his childhood. It would have been no surprise if an unsympathetic crowd at the Gabba in Brisbane had sensed fragility and exploited it.

But Mullally has pulled off an uncommon trick by synthesising the characteristics of an Australian populist and an English pragmatist. His bowling figures against Australia's forbidding batting line-up were 5 for 105 from 40 overs, his best performance in a Test by far. But he also managed to win over a wildly chauvinistic audience.

He is a left-arm, medium-fast seamer whose cheek bones are highlighted by a thick smear of white sun cream, but he has an easy smile, and, what counts most in this arena, he is a bit of a rebel.

Mullally was fielding on the boundary at third man on Friday when a steward confiscated a balloon that had been providing the crowd with more entertainment than the cricket. (After all, many of them had begun to tuck into the beer before play began at 10am.) Mullally fetched the balloon and knocked it back into the crowd. When he returned to third man, a pile of cardboard containers and baseball caps had been left by the boundary rope, like offerings to a minor deity, and Mullally signed them between balls. When he trotted off he could tune the cheers by a turn of his wrist.

His opening spell had been sharp and influential. His first over went for eight runs, but he also found the edge of Michael Slater's bat, and before long Slater was tempted to slash and was caught at wide third slip. Mullally later found the inside edge of Mark Waugh's bat, and yesterday got the brother, Steve, before picking up a couple of Australia's doughty tailenders.

The bad news is that the guilty party in one of England's crucial fielding errors was Alan Mullally. When Alec Stewart threw to the bowler's end as Steve Waugh - then on 30 - scrambled for the crease, Mullally ignored the text book, snatching at the ball before it reached the wicket, knocking off a bail as he did so. Waugh was out of the crease, but Mullally's impetuousness meant that he was able to score another 80 runs.

At the close of that first day's play, when Mullally was paraded before journalists, he was sheepish about his error, admitting his guilt freely, but seemed to be quite without remorse. His performance was intriguing because it showed that, while he might have been brought up in Australia, Mullally has learned the permissive habits of a modern English cricketer.

When he was asked if the team were down at all after both Steve Waugh and Ian Healy had been dropped badly in the last 30 minutes of Friday's play, he said that no, they were not: "The boys are all quite upbeat. No one's perfect, and the Australians are going to drop catches this summer. No one means to. It's how it goes."

If Mullally had not moved back to England to play a decade of county cricket for Leicestershire, I suspect his reaction to dropped catches would have been harder, less forgiving, and unashamed of a desire for perfection.

Keith Fletcher, a legend among judges of good cricketers, thinks that Mullally could play a significant role in this Ashes series. Influenced, so Mullally says himself, by the former Hampshire player Paul Terry, and Jack Birkenshaw, his coach at Leicester, he has shortened his run, and his control has improved. "I'm a lot better bowler, a lot more patient I suppose," he said.

He is disappointed that the Brisbane wicket is flatter than he had hoped, and that he did not swing the ball as much as he can, but he was part of an attack that upset each of the three bright young men at the top of the Australian order, namely Slater, Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting.

Apart from the lapses in the field (it is a big "apart"), Alec Stewart displayed sufficient confidence to give his bowlers attacking fields. Three slips were present throughout the first two sessions of the first day, and this was evidence of a new toughness in England's tactical attitude (although the patient suffered a relapse yesterday, when the defensive ring was usually one slip short).

Attitude is becoming a factor, and the greater level of confidence enables players such as Mullally, Darren Gough and Robert Croft to win over Australian crowds. But England under Stewart still need to toughen up some more before they can win the admiration as well as the sympathy of the loud men beyond the boundary.

THE HICK EFFECT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLAND TOUR REPLACEMENTS

1907-08: GEORGE GUNN

When the England team left Tilbury aboard the SS Ophir in October 1907 they were joined by the Nottinghamshire batsman George Gunn. He had had a lean time in the county's Championship win, being in moderate health and failing to register 1,000 runs, and went to Australia to improve his condition. By the time the First Test came round in December, however, the England captain, Arthur Jones, had fallen seriously ill and was in hospital. Gunn was summoned to Sydney to make his Test debut. He went in at 11 for 1, made 119, added 74 in the second innings, kept his place and was easily England's leading scorer in the series, which they lost 4-1.

1968-69: COLIN MILBURN

Pakistan was in political upheaval when England toured the country in 1968-69, and matches were rarely safe from trouble. The First Test was subject to constant crowd invasion, the Second was policed by left-wing students. On the eve of the Third Test in Karachi, England needed reinforcements and called Colin Milburn from Western Australia (for whom he made 243 before tea against Queensland). He arrived two days before the match, opened the innings, reached 100 off 163 balls and went on to make 139. On day three another riot led to abandonment. A few weeks later Milburn lost an eye in a car crash and never played for England again.

1974-75: COLIN COWDREY

It all went wrong for England early on the 1974-75 tour of Australia, as soon as Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson made their velocity felt. Australia won the First Test by 166 runs and left Dennis Amiss with a broken thumb and John Edrich with a broken hand. Colin Cowdrey flew in as replacement. It was his sixth tour of Australia and 11 days short of his 42nd birthday he resumed his international career after an absence of more than three years. He never flinched under the assault and, briefly, it seemed as though the return might enter the realms of fairy tale. He made 22 and 41 in the Second Test but, though he played staunchly thereafter, the raw pace accounted for him as well.

1980-81: ROBIN JACKMAN

At the age of 35 Robin Jackman might have given up on the idea of playing Test cricket but when Bob Willis broke down on England's 1980-81 tour of the West Indies the Surrey bowler was invited to join the team. There remained massive hurdles to overcome. The Guyanan authorities decided to expel him because he had played in South Africa and England pulled out of the Second Test. The tour was briefly in jeopardy but the other Caribbean governments relented. Jackman made his debut in Barbados, dismissed Gordon Greenidge with his fifth ball and played three more Tests, the last of them in 1982 when he bowled 35 overs unchanged at Headingley.

1983-84: TONY PIGOTT

In February 1984, Tony Pigott, the Sussex seam bowler, was in New Zealand playing for Wellington and preparing for marriage. Then Graham Dilley belatedly pulled out of the Second Test in Christchurch. Pigott was selected and postponed the wedding. What followed was unkind. On a dodgy pitch New Zealand made 307 when 200 should have been the absolute limit. Pigott took 2 for 75 in 17 overs. England were bowled out, for 82 and 93 and lost by lunch on the third day. As Wisden reported, Pigott, who never played another Test, would have had time not only to get married but start his honeymoon in South America as well.

STEPHEN BRENKLEY

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