Cricket: Age is no barrier to Benjamin: Rob Steen meets the Surrey stayer who is coming into his own at a time when others are pulling up

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JOEY BENJAMIN, the Surrey pace bowler, will embark on his first international tour next week at an age when even the most formidable of his breed tend to be one or two fetlocks short of maximum horsepower.

Benjamin leaves for Australia with the England party on Tuesday; on the eve of the fifth Test, in Perth next February, Benjamin will turn 34. Fred Trueman and John Snow, England's finest post- war purveyors of pace, both won their last caps at 34. Lillee, Holding and Roberts were done and dusted at 32, Malcolm Marshall at 33. The omens are not encouraging.

Defying the ageist tendency was a worthy enough achievement. Not since Robin Jackman made the grade at 35 in 1981 have England introduced a fast bowler of similar age. What makes the tardy arrival of this quiet, unassuming contender all the more remarkable is the fact that his cv lacked a first-class wicket until he was 28.

'Age doesn't get in Benjie's way because he's as fit as anyone I know,' his Surrey team- mate, Alistair Brown, said. 'He's bowled non-stop for the past two years, and I can see him sustaining his form for another two or three because he's got the body of a 23-year-old.

'I'm also sure it helped playing club cricket for so long instead of pounding away on the county circuit. Martin Bicknell is almost eight years younger than him but he's been treading the mill since he was 17 and he has the body of a 50-year-old.'

So why the delay? The last time England won an Ashes series down under, Benjamin was stocking shelves in the Birmingham branch of Dillons. An ideal place, perhaps, to nurture his passion for Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, yet hardly the most apt launchpad for one of the more meteoric ascents in post-war English cricket.

Minding a bookstore was one of several detours. At 15 he had left his native St Kitts to be reunited with his parents, who had emigrated to Birmingham when his father got a driving job with British Rail, leaving an aunt to raise two-year-old Joey.

'When I left school I had a series of shit jobs - brass factory, warehouse, the sort of stuff they throw at you when you don't get enough 'O' levels. When Dillons sacked me after four years because I wanted to play for Aston Nandsworth on Saturdays, I went into landscape gardening. It was a joke. I knew nothing about gardening, other than that it meant working outdoors.'

In cricketing terms, Benjamin readily concedes, the hurdles were partially self-imposed. 'Warwickshire turned me down at 16 but my dad told me not to worry. Talent was enough, he would say, someone will notice eventually. But I needed more coaching, so I regret that philosophy slightly. Playing in the leagues before I played for Staffordshire didn't help either. You tend to learn more in Minor Counties cricket.'

A modestly successful NatWest showing for Staffordshire against Warwickshire in 1987 led to a contract at Edgbaston the following summer, but opportunities were limited. 'I got really depressed. Small, Munton and Donald are good bowlers, I would tell myself, but so was I. But at 29 you do begin to wonder whether it's all a waste of time.'

To his surprise, Surrey offered a three-year contract in 1991, whereupon that sage of seam, Geoff Arnold, then coach at The Oval, got to work. 'To listen to 'Horse', he never bowled a bad ball in his life. He can watch you all day then tell you at 6.30 what you did wrong in your seventh over. He told me to keep up the pressure by varying my deliveries, keep 'em guessing. The great thing about playing at The Oval is that the wickets are so good they can make you a better bowler as well as a better batsman. You can't afford to make mistakes.'

A couple of winters in the Melbourne District League rammed home the message, obliging him to rely more on variation than vagaries of pitch. Ironic, then, that Arnold's acrimonious dismissal last autumn should be perceived as a leg-up to the next rung.

'Without Arnold,' Brown observed, 'Benjie relaxed more. There was no one on his shoulder, picking away at the faults. Some players benefit from public bollockings, but he needs to be taken aside quietly. He can be very defensive. As coaches, Graham Dilley and Grahame Clinton were ideal because they were very laid-back towards him.'

This year, confidence, knowledge and experience fused as one. Exploding at the crease in a flurry of elbows and knees, Benjamin bowled with sustained gusto and control, claiming 80 first-class wickets at 20.72. Seventh in the national averages constituted a rise of 100 places in two seasons. A stayer in a stable of sprinters, he took twice as many wickets as any colleague, primarily as a consequence of late away swing generated by a powerful, supple wrist.

Conceding fewer than 2.7 runs per over, moreover, testified to the consistent accuracy. 'He wears people down,' reasons David Ward, until recently a frequent accomplice behind the stumps. 'At the same time, his change of pace surprises them - his bouncer is a yard and a half quicker.'

Come graduation day, fruition. Summoned to The Oval after being ill-advisedly omitted from the Headingley 12, Benjamin took 4 for 42 in South Africa's first innings before yielding centre stage to Devon Malcolm.

'When I got that fourth wicket I thought I was dreaming. It didn't really feel like a Test match because we were at The Oval. I was at home. Athers took me aside before we went out and said I should treat it as an ordinary county game, which also helped.'

So, too, presumably, the self-belief that blocks the door to satisfaction and inertia. 'I've never lacked faith in myself and I'm not going to stop just because I've got this far. You've got to keep on going, see how much more you can achieve.'

'Benjie'll do well in Australia,' Brown predicts, 'provided he's as patient as he is here.' If any cricketer has mastered that particular discipline, it is assuredly Joseph Emanuel Benjamin.

(Photograph omitted)