Cricket: Allott bounces back to success

New Zealand's paceman hopes to steal the headlines from Pakistan's fast bowlers today.
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The Independent Online
IF PRE-TOURNAMENT hype is to be justified, then today's first World Cup semi-final will be Shoaib Ahktar's stage, the moment at which the Rawalpindi Express roars through Old Trafford at full velocity, carrying Pakistan on the final leg of their journey to Lord's. The upstart New Zealanders who purport to stand in the way might as well step aside now.

Brashly, the headstrong young lion promised he would bowl at 100 miles per hour in this competition, taking away Jeff Thomson's record as the fast man's fast bowler, the quickest of all time. Reined in by a captain who would rather he bowled for the team, Shoaib has yet to fulfil his pledge. But he will be no less determined to claim the headlines today - not least because of the presence among the opposition of a bowler who has already effectively upstaged him.

Geoff Allott does not propel the ball at anywhere near Shoaib's pace and will not attempt to, even though the speed gun has clocked his best at a highly respectable 91mph (compared with 96mph for Shoaib). Nor does he accept that he is among the World Cup's stars. Yet by taking 20 wickets so far in his quiet, unassuming way, he has assured himself of a place in the record books, having overtaken the 18 of Roger Binny (India, 1983), Craig McDermott (Australia, 1987) and Wasim Akram (1992), whom he opposes today, as the man who has taken the most wickets in one tournament.

At 27, the tall, strongly built left-armer is enjoying the form of his life and relishing it all the more given that, this time last year, his back was wrecked and his career apparently close to an end. Two stress fractures and a bulged disc - the legacy of a mixed-up action in which his legs came through front-on in conflict with a side-on upper body - required him first to take a prolonged rest and then completely remodel his action. Only last December did he return to action.

During the one-day series against South Africa in which New Zealand warmed up for the World Cup, he took 14 wickets as a hint of what was to come. That he has bounced back with such success is a tribute not only to his own hard work but, he says, to the new professionalism in New Zealand cricket, which ensured his comeback was controlled and monitored at every stage.

"At one point I really did not know whether I would play again but the whole recovery process was managed brilliantly and I had great support all the way along," Allott said yesterday as New Zealand completed their preparations in the Manchester sunshine.

"Dayle Hadlee and Ashley Ross at the New Zealand Academy helped me rebuild my action completely so that the stresses were removed. I really had to start again from scratch, almost like learning to walk again. I still have to do a lot of exercises to maintain the strength of the back and I wear a brace as well but so far it feels really good."

The changes also made it possible for him to bowl in-swing to right-handers, a weapon vital to the left-armer if he is to be a genuine threat to top- class batsmen. He has learned to bowl to a fuller length and the swinging yorker is now as much part of his armoury as it is Shoaib's. Allott, who was a schoolboy spinner, has also worked out a three- fingered grip to keep the Duke ball firmly under his control.

Those 20 wickets have cost 14.20 runs each and his strike rate at a wicket every 23.6 balls is bettered among the survivors in the competition only by the redoubtable Lance Klusener, which is something England will have noted as they look ahead to the forthcoming Test series against New Zealand. They are not just any 20 wickets either. His 4 for 37 against Australia included Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Bevan while Saurav Ganguly, Herschelle Gibbs and Neil Johnson are other top-order batsmen who can give personal testimony to his effectiveness.

He also took four against Pakistan when they met in a Group B match at Derby three weeks ago. But the Kiwis lost by 62 runs and Allott's 10 overs cost 64. "I was disappointed with my performance but I've tried to take some lessons from that," he said. "It was a learning experience for us all and it will not matter that we are seen as underdogs today."

Shoaib, who has been carefully shielded from media attention throughout the World Cup, has also let it be known that he has a queue of English counties ready to pay for his services next summer. Allott, meanwhile, although in the privileged position of enjoying two years' leave to play cricket, remains an employee of a Christchurch bank, a reflection of the insecurity of the last 12 months.

"I have until October to decide what I am going to do," he said, before hinting that he too would be open to offers to come back. "I had not really thought about it before the tournament but I've found that I like English conditions, English people and the passion for the game here."