Cricket: Bailey's patience rewarded

Success in a Lord's final would be a fitting reward for Northamptonshir e's captain. He spoke to Adam Szreter
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The Independent Online
Barbados, 1990. Curtly Ambrose is steaming in to bowl for a rampant West Indies, while at the other end his Northamptonshire team-mate Rob Bailey settles at the crease. The ball is too good for Bailey and whistles through to the wicket keeper at lightning speed, perhaps brushing the batsman's thigh on the way. Jeffrey Dujon takes the ball safely and he and his slip fielders claim a catch, Viv Richards infamously running fully 40 yards to demand a guilty verdict from the umpire, Lloyd Barker. Slowly he raises his finger and Bailey trudges back to the pavilion, having failed again to make an impression as an England batsman.

One way or another, it was not to be for Bailey and England. He played four Tests, all against the West Indies, and did not manage a fifty. He was only 26 at the time but he has not been asked back. It was a sad end to a traumatic period in his life, after he had turned down a large amount of money to go to South Africa with Mike Gatting's rebels in the hope of further honours for England. His father, a popular Staffordshire policeman, was dying of cancer while Bailey was attempting to make the most important decision of his career.

But although his loyalty to England went unrewarded, his loyalty to Northamptonshire was soon to start paying dividends. The club he joined as a 16-year-old after progressing through the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League appointed him vice-captain in 1991 and, despite offers of captaincy from other counties, Bailey was content to bide his time. This winter it was all change at Wantage Road.

Allan Lamb relinquished the captaincy after six seasons and, in the face of competition from one or two of the other senior players, Bailey was promoted. In addition to his appointment, John Emburey was drafted in from Middlesex as player/coach, Neil Foster, the former Essex and England fast bowler, was put in charge of youth development, and Ambrose returned for his final season with the county, to replace Anil Kumble as overseas player.

On Saturday Bailey has the chance to put a trophy in the cabinet in his first season as captain and, despite their disappointing form in the Championship, victory over Lancashire at Lord's in the Benson and Hedges Cup will undeniably mean a successful start for this most popular of cricketers. First, though, Northamptonshire have to travel to Lancashire's headquarters for a NatWest Trophy second-round tie today.

"Ideally, we wouldn't have wanted to play them three days before in the NatWest game," Bailey admitted, before going on to assess the qualities of the cup holders. "They're a bit like ourselves, they bat down the order as they showed against Yorkshire [in the semi-final] when Warren Hegg scored 80 off 60 balls coming in at number eight. This season they haven't got a Wasim Akram, someone you think, 'we've got to see him off, he's a big danger', but we respect them all as individuals."

The Northamptonshire side that went so long unbeaten in one-day cricket this season virtually picks itself for the final, with Mal Loye now re-established as a batsman following Lamb's enforced retire- ment owing to his controversial forthcoming autobiography. The loss of Lamb as a player, and adviser in the field, was a blow to Bailey but one that he has quickly come to terms with. "Once we realised he wasn't going to be playing we just had to get on with it. Lambie's one of, if not the best batsman who's ever played for Northampton. He's a very unselfish batsman, he averages 50 or 60 but it could have been an awful lot more had he been more selfish. He was a very entertaining batsman and a great loss to the side. But you have to move on from those things and it's given one of the younger lads a chance. That's the future of the club and we have to move forward.

"Obviously, getting someone like John Emburey has been a major bonus, but it's been difficult on the bowling side. Anil Kumble, who didn't miss a game last season and took 105 wickets in the Championship, takes some replacing. So far, the wickets haven't suited our spinners. We're still waiting for the dry spell to come, to get some dry wickets, and hopefully John's going to pick up some wickets for us as the season goes on."

As for his own contribution as captain, Bailey is cautiously optimistic. "It's something I've wanted to do for quite a while. I've always had my sights set on it and I was pleased to get a chance to do it. I'm reasonably happy with the way things have gone, but at the moment we've won nothing this season; that's why this week is such a massive one for us. If we win on Saturday we've got a trophy and that gives the lads heart to go back to Championship cricket and rescue something from that."

Bailey admits that Emburey's coaching of the county's younger spinners and his experience on the field has been useful, but if Northamptonshire look to any individual for inspiration it is Ambrose. "It's great when he's running in with his knees up round his chest. It's a lovely sight," says his captain. Barbados, it seems, is ancient history. "It's all part of the game," Bailey said. "It's interesting because at the time Curtly didn't actually appeal. But a few years ago when I mentioned it to him he just said, 'some you win some you lose', and that summed it up." Somehow, as Bailey stares into the distance reflecting on his misfortune, you get the feeling that defeat on Saturday would not be treated with quite the same equanimity.