Cricket: Croft creates an instant impression

The Bard of Wales has put a new spin on the role of England offie. Derek Pringle expects his talent and character to be put under pressure by Australia in the third Test, starting tomorrow
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Robert Croft is a man made for Test cricket. You can see it in the way he goes from complete relaxation to total commitment when the ball is thrust into his hand. Some spend years trying to find the inner confidence that makes the transition from county to country feel natural and deserved. With Croft it took just two balls: his first to know he belonged, and one more to realise he wanted to stay.

Michael Atherton, another more suitably geared to the Test arena, remembers the moment well. "It was the final Test against Pakistan at The Oval last summer and their openers had just put on a hundred when I called him up to bowl," the England captain recalled. "Crofty was making his debut. But he didn't try to hide or look apologetic about it. He just marched up, handed his cap to the umpire and started telling me where he'd like his field. I was impressed."

Despite England's heavy defeat, Croft had bowled well on the ground where he had made his first-class debut for Glamorgan, seven years earlier. But if the figures: 2 for 116 from 47 overs, looked slightly unflattering to the untrained eye, it did not prevent the odd cautious eulogy appearing in the press.

Of course, it was not all that long ago that off-spinners were thought to be an endangered species at Test level. Batsmen-friendly umpires, who allowed blatant use of the pad, allied to the use of heavy bats, had reduced the offie to feeding off crumbs. Regular sightings in an England sweater, especially after John Emburey had defected to South Africa in 1989, became rare.

Croft, however, despite his ruddy well-fed demeanour, instantly looked the part and with his upbeat nature has become one of Atherton's trump cards alongside the equally effusive Gough. On tour, the pair were inseparable, their constant banter and high spirits causing David Lloyd, the England coach, to nickname them "The Children." Yet, as more than one England player has attested, all sides need boisterous and confident characters about the dressing-room. Too much quiet can make players freeze.

But attitude alone is not a guarantee of survival and the Welshman has had to cut the mustard with the ball. Unless they can bat in the top six, a spinner cannot be carried solely as a defensive bowler and must take wickets.

So far, the 27-year old Croft has punched his weight even on pitches that have not suited him, much of his success due to a precious ability to drift the ball away from the right-hander. It means he can beat batsmen on both sides of the bat: on the outside with his drift, and on the inside when it turns.

Like the Australian bowler Tim May, who he says inspired him when the Aussies last toured here four years ago, this ability means he can be used to attack as a wicket-taking option. Bowling to right-handers, he sets his line to hit off-stump. Until recently, most English off-spinners packed their on-side field and plugged away at middle and leg, in the hope that they would bore the batsman into submission.

The beauty of Croft's line is that he always brings his slip into play. According to Nasser Hussain, who fields there and gratefully pouches the catches, Croft's drift is deadly.

"Many players will play inside the line, expecting the ball to turn," Hussain reckons. "When it doesn't, I know I'm likely to be in business, especially if they've committed themselves early and the drift draws them into playing away from their pad." With 24 wickets at 25.83 from seven Tests the ploy is clearly an effective one.

Bowling has not always gone as swimmingly, though, and before he changed his grip two winters ago, one of his "A" team colleagues from 1993, described his bowling as "schoolboy off-spin." But while he did tend to lob the ball rather than tweak it, it was only when he was dropped by Glamorgan in 1994, that he was jolted into exploring other avenues.

"Being left out came as a huge shock," he said. "But when I saw that it was down to me to win matches, especially in the fourth innings, which I wasn't achieving, I thought I'd better do something about it.

"My problem was that I was undercutting the ball and not spinning it properly. So that winter I began to experiment with different grips. Also my shoulders were breaking too early in the action, so I changed the angle of my run-up."

With help from the former Glamorgan stalwarts Tom Cartwright and Don Shepherd, as well as more recent advice from Emburey, Croft has become a fine Test match bowler, although only three of his Test appearances have been against the top sides. As many point out, he has yet to be put under real pressure by someone like Mark Waugh, who tends to play spin well, and his greatest test of character may come in the next few Tests as Australia try to move mountains in order to get back on an even footing.

To date, only his batting, so vital and assured with Glamorgan, has disappointed. It may be that his mental energies are totally devoted to his bowling. More likely, is that one or two technical deficiencies are being found out. After all, the lower order always get to face the best bowlers. It is one of the few perks a bowler has.

A Welsh speaker, he hails from Hendy, a hotbed of Welsh nationalism, situated half-way between Swansea and Llanelli. When asked if the locals had any problems with him playing for the Saes (the English), Croft simply chuckles, claiming he passes it off as the equivalent of playing rugby union for the Lions.

Ironic or not, Croft's cricket and gregarious nature have made him a highly popular man, particularly in the Principality, where they are about to bestow the honour of making him a Bard of Wales. A distinction he will share with other sportsmen like Gareth Edwards, Ieuan Evans and the Glamorgan batsman Alan Jones.

The ceremony, which entails wearing a long, green robe will take place at this year's National Eisteddfod. His bardic title will be Robert O'r Hendy. Robert Droellwr (Spinner) was apparently considered, although Robert the Karaoke King would apparently be the most accurate.

With a surname that has close associations with the land, it is not surprising to learn that much of Croft's spare time is spent fishing in the wilder regions. Indeed, the day before England gathered at Old Trafford, he was busy catching an eight-pound trout. A bit of a change, he says, from his fruitless forays with Atherton in New Zealand, when the England captain caught all the fish. An imbalance that on one occasion saw the frustrated Croft tuck a seven-foot Mako shark into his skipper's bed.

Having never played cricket at school, he says he was lucky to have been brought up by parents who thrust "a cricket bat in one hand and a rugby ball in the other." But if his dreams of being scrum-half for Wales began to fade, his cricket, which began with the Swansea Cricket Club juniors, has not disappointed, and barring serious injury, he will surely break Jeff Jones's record of 15 Tests, as the most capped Welshman of all time.

He claims that the record has no bearing on his current aspirations, which Ashes aside, are more long term. "My ambition is to prove that off- spinners can play Test cricket and that there is a happy medium between keeping it tight and taking wickets." It is a flame that can have no better keeper than the Bard O'r Hendy.