Cricket: Austin in vintage condition

Burly all-rounder is Lancashire's linchpin.
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SOMEONE HAS made a big mistake. They erroneously wrote that Ian Austin had been a gravedigger in the long winter months that separate a cricketer from his livelihood. That person was wrong and no doubt they are, even now, casting furtive glances over a shoulder, looking for their nemesis in the shape of the not inconsiderably built Austin.

"I have never been a gravedigger," insisted the Lancashire all-rounder (he won't admit to being an all-rounder but he does enough with bat and ball to suggest that anything less would be an understatement, particularly in the one-day game). He has, though, humped sides of beef around in his time - "that was a fun job" - delivered beds and laid carpets.

Recently he has been playing football for his local pub on Sundays and he also plays golf often enough and well enough to have beaten his handicap down to five. But it is cricket he is serious about. When it comes to his job, Austin is something of a scout, tying the opposition in knots with his nagging seamers. On a length, invariably. Doing just enough to frustrate and fox the best. Then he gets a bat in his hand. The best advice is stand clear. He is not just the blue touch paper, he is the original banger.

"I like to give the ball a bit of a clatter," said the man who scored the fastest first-class century in 1991 off just 64 balls of genuine bowling. It was his maiden first-class hundred - 101 not out - against, satisfyingly, the old enemy Yorkshire on their turf at Scarborough.

Austin has a refreshingly basic approach to his cricket. He wants to entertain. There are not many who would gainsay him when he stated: "I play best when I play positively, when I am not just pushing the ball around all bloody day. It is our job, as cricketers, to entertain. And at Lancashire we have one of the best sides for that. A team that likes to play positively and entertain. Athers [Michael Atherton] and Nathan [Wood] are quite happy to bat all day and they invariably get us off to a good start. But once they have gone there are plenty of guys who like to score freely, John Crawley, Neil Fairbrother, Graham Lloyd, Warren Hegg and myself."

Austin is not exactly a household name, but he is a highly talented cricketer. He recently hit the big-time. Having been selected as one of 37 players in England's World Cup squad, he was then picked for, and played in, all three matches in the recent triangular tournament against South Africa and Sri Lanka. The three wickets and 29 runs were no reflection of what this man mountain is capable. His call-up was dramatic in itself. Austin was in the middle of a Roses match at Headingley.

The Lancashire coach, Dav Whatmore, suddenly sprinted on to the field and gave him the news in the middle of the morning session. "It was a bit of a surprise," said the naturally self-effacing Austin. "OK, people say things to you and they reckon you are close and that goes on for a few years, but over time you take less and less notice of them. Then suddenly I was named in the World Cup squad. It was quite a surprise to me. The irritating thing is that I haven't had time to celebrate the fact yet.

"All I did after I got in the side for the triangular tournament was travel from one end of the country to another."

Unlike the selectors and the press, Austin knows his game and his limitations. "I'm never going to blast out a side," he said matter-of-factly. "It's my job to tie them down. Frustrate the batsmen and force them to get themselves out."

He has been taking the new ball in the one-day game, specifically in the Sunday League. "Wasim Akram has missed a couple of games," explained the 32-year-old Austin, "and as it happens I was quite successful with the new ball. And since with these white ones it tends to swing when it gets older Wasim has been quite happy to come on first change."

Austin can also field. He has good hands and anticipates well. Underestimate the chances of a run to him and a batsman is out. The arm is too good as many a bold adventurer between the wickets has discovered. But there is a quieter side to Austin. A side that has (do not let it be known too far afield) eschewed beer for wine. "I like New Zealand sauvignons, Australian chardonnays and a few South African wines," said Austin. "I went through a period of trying as much as I could until I had worked out what I liked."

Rather like a good wine, Austin has matured into the sort of cricketer everyone likes and enjoys. This Haslingden man holds the amateur Lancashire League record for the highest score, 147 not out, and it is quite likely that when Saturday comes he will find himself doing a bit of gravedigging as he helps to create a hole for Derbyshire to drop into.