Cricket: Austin revels in big finish

Old Trafford's cult figure is just the sort of bowler England will need for the World Cup - a cool-headed limited-overs specialist.
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THE ROSES match of last August proved a notable success for Lancashire in their valiant but ultimately vain attempt to catch Leicestershire at the top of the Championship table. But it was memorable for more than that. John Crawley's 180 in the first innings equalled the fourth-highest score by a Lancashire player in Roses matches; and when the 12th man, Richard Green, walked out to bat in the second innings it became the first occasion that 12 different players had batted for Lancashire in a Championship fixture.

The cause of this apparent conundrum was the surprise call-up of Ian Austin to the England side to play Sri Lanka in a one-day international at Lord's. After contributing 49 to the first-innings total, Austin packed his bags, headed south and, one way or another, he has been surprising people outside of his native county ever since.

Now 33, even Austin's most ardent admirers, and probably the player himself, had long since given up on his chances of representing his country. Among those admirers was Wasim Akram, his former county captain who has described Austin as "the best death bowler I have ever seen", referring to Austin's priceless ability to bowl tightly at the end of one-day matches.

Back at Lord's this week on county duty, following his stint in Sharjah with England and looking ahead to his involvement in this summer's World Cup, Austin reflected on the Pakistan captain's generous appraisal. "It's a great compliment and just a pity he wasn't an England selector a few years ago," he said. "My call-up came a bit late in the day and I know he pushed my case a couple of times before that."

That case is based on consistency and a temperament for the big occasion. After winning the Gold Award in the 1996 Benson and Hedges Cup final, Austin was last season's man of the match in the NatWest final, taking 3 for 14 from 10 overs after Wasim himself had been clattered to all parts of the ground by Derbyshire's batsmen.

That achievement, allied to the following explanation, was enough to earn Austin the unlikely accolade of being named as one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year for 1998. "Nowadays, it is a rarity for someone to come along and establish a special rapport, even with his home crowd," Matthew Engel, the book's editor, wrote. "Ian Austin is an exception.

"He is Lancashire to the marrow. When he succeeds there is a special cheer in the Old Trafford pavilion because they regard him as one of their own. There ought to be dozens like him, but there aren't."

Austin was born in and played for Haslingden in the Lancashire league, following in his father's footsteps. A keen footballer and a Burnley supporter, he joined Lancashire in 1986, primarily as a batsman who could bowl, but the quality of Lancashire's batting and the relative dearth of seam talent pushed him in the other direction.

His value in limited-overs cricket was soon apparent, but it took him longer to become the key member of Lancashire's Championship side he is now. "I'd like to think I've been reasonably consistent, looked upon as a reliable bloke that the captain can throw the ball to and know what he's going to get. It's handy to have people like that in your side, as opposed to the champagne cricketers who might win you a game but might not contribute to a game.

"I try not to get flustered. If you're bowling at the end of a tight game you have a game plan but also give yourself a couple of back-up ideas. You've got to think as a batsman and try to work out what they might be thinking.

"If you do your homework then hopefully you can keep quiet and calm about it and carry on as though you've got everything under control. Looks can be quite deceiving - if a bowler appears completely in control after he's just been slapped in the stand it makes the batsman think. A lot of it is mind games."

His career as an England player has so far failed to reach the same heights as some of his performances for Lancashire. He let no one down after his belated call-up to the triangular tournament last summer but struggled on unsuitable pitches recently in Sharjah.

If he does make the team for the World Cup, though, the fielding of a player once described as looking like "a stoker on a merchant steamer" will be scrutinised almost as much as his batting and bowling.

"It's no secret I won't be the most athletic bloke on the field," he said, "but I've got a good pair of hands and without digging myself too big a hole, I don't drop too many catches. I've got a good arm as well."

And with little more than three weeks to go before the tournament starts, surely someone as level-headed as Austin has not been dreaming of bowling the last over in the World Cup final with, say, nine runs between England and victory?

"Not recently" he said. "I probably dreamt about it as a kid. But I'll worry about that if the situation arises and I'd back myself to do it. I'm confident enough, I know what I want to do and hopefully we'd canter through that, lift the World Cup and have a good night after all."