Cricket: A taste of the old vintage

Stephen Brenkley at Edgbaston watches a restored Cork slip back into old routine

IT WAS the 16th ball of Dominic Cork's return to the England side. That worked out at one for each of the months of his exile, as though to emphasise what we had been missing.

Then he struck. Gerry Liebenberg, the South African opening batsman, pushed forward and whatever he expected it failed to materialise. The delivery jagged back irksomely and the resultant inside edge ballooned off his pads to short leg.

There the story merely got better. Ben Spendlove, the 19-year-old substitute fielder who was on in place of the injured Darren Gough, stood up and held the catch firmly in two hands. He had been called up from Derbyshire on the recommendation of Cork, his county colleague. It was difficult to tell who was the more jubilant.

The teenaged 12th man raced up the pitch and whipped off his helmet to reveal a huge grin, bleached blond hair and an earring. Now, if only he could bowl leg spin like Shane Warne, it was swiftly suggested. But the attention in that moment had to be on Cork. He kissed a medallion of St Christopher given to him by his parents on his 18th birthday, and then clenched his fists and raised his face to the skies - not necessarily in celebration, but in thanks to the cricketing gods.

Three short years ago against the West Indies Cork made Test cricket look as easy as waiting at tables in an uncrowded restaurant. "Another wicket sir, certainly; a fifty, you say, no problem; a hat-trick, coming up." He was soon to learn that there is more to the old game than balancing a couple of plates in one hand.

It would be foolish to expect too much now. For a start, when Ian Botham came back after a long absence from the England side in 1986, he took wickets with his first and 12th balls.

Cork does not have quite that standard of scriptwriter - Botham also got a quickfire 59 in that comeback against New Zealand while Cork's highly judicious innings on Friday ended on 36 - but there is no doubt that he is back where he belongs. He revelled in the atmosphere and you did not need to be Desmond Morris to deduce that those clenched fists represented the sort of body language which screamed that the whole thing mattered desperately to him.

He was quickly in tune with the crowd. They chanted (another irksome business): "If you hate Man Utd, stand up." Cork did not quite do that but being a faithful Stoke City supporter he raised his hands impishly above his head to show solidarity. Each of his spells was compellingly incisive and by the end, when Spendlove had taken another catch, he was not clenching his fists in supplication, he was punching the air with them.

It was entirely appropriate that Botham had gone down to the changing- room at tea to suggest he did not bowl too quickly. Cork said it helped. "I'm probably more excited now to be back in the side than when I first got picked," he said and sounded as though he meant it.

Considering what happened to the Australians here last summer, England will shortly want to carry Edgbaston round with them as a good luck charm.

What neither Cork nor Gus Fraser, who bowled a couple of truly mean overs, could do, of course, was to entirely compensate for the loss of Gough, who is likely to be out for at least two more Test matches. He would have provided England with a cutting edge and is faster than anybody else in the side. Indeed, his broken finger deprived observers of the opportunity to see just how fast he is from the Yellow Pages speed measuring machine. This reveals the pace of each ball and claims to be accurate to within one per cent.

Fraser was steady at around 76mph, Cork was up to 80mph most balls, so Gough would probably have been 85mph. But what the machine seems to prove above all is that it is how quick bowlers appear to be which matters, not how quick they are according to a gizmo.

They have played in the same side only four times before (won one, lost one, drawn two) and it has been generally recognised these past few days that Gough, Cork and Fraser represent probably the most penetrating trio of England seamers (but whither Andrew Caddick?). The sadness is that to all intents and purposes they still are.

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