Cricket: Day job not enough to test Knight

The Warwickshire opener is in the Texaco Trophy squad to face South Africa on Thursday but, as Ian Stafford hears, resists being typecast
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IT WAS always going to be a slight risk, but one, I felt, worth taking. Nip up to Derby to see Nick Knight, and have a pleasant chat with the man either over lunch or, if Warwickshire were batting, once he had been dismissed, hopefully after a quick-fire fifty.

So much for the plan. Knight was required to open for Warwickshire immediately after lunch, which meant he spent the interval padding up and preparing for an innings he knew could be important a matter of days before the England one-day squad to play South Africa on Thursday were announced.

Just under six hours later, at a quarter past seven, Knight was finally out, 109 runs for the better. As the shadows lengthened, and ripples of applause sounded out around a Derby ground bathed in early evening sunlight, Knight lifted his bat high in appreciation before turning his attention to me.

I was about to congratulate the man on his best, and extremely timely knock of the season, but he got in first. "I'm really sorry about that," he said. "You were dead unlucky today. I must admit, I kept seeing you hanging around the boundary when I was at the crease, and I was thinking: `I'm keeping this man waiting all this time.' I'm sure I saw you appeal once for a leg before."

Apology, although extraordinary under the circumstances, accepted. After all, he had just spent a valuable afternoon and evening out in the middle, and looked every inch the potential star batsman he has often threatened to be. With a Test average of 30 in 11 matches, he has neither failed nor succeeded, but in the one-day version the statistics utter a resounding vote of confidence.

In 21 internationals Knight has averaged 50, and as the West Indies will vouch after the series just passed, he can be incredibly destructive, especially in the crucial first 15 overs, when only two fielders are allowed outside the circle.

"Yeah, since the 15 over rule has come into the game, it makes a huge difference to the way I bat as a one-day player as opposed to a three or five-day batsmen," Knight explains. "I'm looking to make 40-odd in those 15 overs, and that's personally. It means you have to take risks in order to exploit the rule, but I seemed to have done OK at it up to now."

So OK, in fact, that he is in danger, alongside the likes of Adam Hollioake, Dougie Brown, Matthew Fleming et al, of being branded as one of England's specialist one-day players, something Knight is keen to avoid.

"People are entitled to say I've performed better in the overs games because the figures say I have," he admits. "But there's no way I want to be categorised as a one-day player. I'm not sure whether anybody does.

"I know that I'm good enough to be a top Test batsman. I've scored a century, a 96, and a couple of fifties, and although an average of 30 is something to be improved on, it's not a disgrace either, especially after just 11 Tests."

For a while Knight's place in the Test side looked a certainty. He batted particularly well two winters ago in Zimbabwe, finishing the second Test with a 96 which saw England tie with the hosts. Hugely disappointed with the outcome of this game, Knight went on to New Zealand and suffered a poor run of scores. Although a regular in the one-day internationals, he has not been picked for the Test side since.

I wondered if the near miss in Bulawayo affected him. "Maybe," he says, nodding his head slowly. "Maybe. I'm still disappointed about that when I think about what happened. It was a game we really should have won. I know I did well, and I batted right the way through the innings, but it didn't mean anything to me because I was desperate for a win. When I analysed my innings, I felt I faced enough balls to have steered England home."

A bit harsh, I felt, on himself, but it is interesting how Knight has been in the Test match wilderness since. Having sat out both last summer's Ashes home series, and the Test match part of the West Indies tour over last winter, Knight appreciates how important it is to thrust himself back into the reckoning this time. Yet, in keeping with his easy nature, he is not losing too much sleep.

"You want to get back as soon as you can, and the longer you are out, the harder it becomes to make a successful return," Knight explains. "It's important to take the chance when it comes your way, and clearly it's been felt in some quarters that I've failed to do this. People go on about my technical flaws, although there aren't too many batsmen who don't have a technical flaw somewhere in their game. I work very hard with Phil Neale and Graham Gooch and I feel, when I'm on top of my game, that I am comfortable with Test cricket.

"Of course I'm hungry for more, much more, but if you spend too long thinking about your chances of being recalled, it can also work against you. You begin to place yourself under pressure, you grow tense, and it becomes counter-productive. If you wake up and say: `I've really got to make a big score today,' then you've immediately placed yourself at a disadvantage."

Which is why he also does not allow himself to worry over what his likely competitors to a Test opening slot, batsmen like Mike Atherton, Darren Maddy and Mark Butcher, are up to. "If they're doing better than me, then good luck to them. If I think about them, it detracts from my own performance. All I can do is give myself the best chance of selection by scoring runs. That's why a hundred like today's always helps." He pauses, and looks out over the outfield. "You have to be totally focused, and I just don't see how you can be if you worry about others."

Knight's role in the forthcoming one-day series, always guaranteed after his Caribbean performances, is enhanced not only by his remarkable fielding displays at slip, but also by his experience of the main-line South African bowling attack of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, two Warwickshire colleagues.

"We know each other pretty well," Knight says. "I'm not sure whether the advantages cancel each other out, though. I know exactly how they will bowl to me, but they'll know how I'll try and bat against them.

"They're going to make it tough, maybe even more so in the Test series. Donald's one of the very best bowlers in the world, and Pollock's fast emerging into that category, too, but England have no reason not to be confident."

And what of Knight? Is he confident that this summer will be a productive one? He smiles. "I hope so," he says. "I'm in possession of a place right now for the one-day series, and it's up to me to play well enough in this, and in the County Championship, to force my way back into the Test side. I love international cricket and I just can't get enough of it. As always, the chance is there. I've just got to make sure I take it."

His century the other day in Derby would not have done him any harm, then, in this case, even if he felt bad about holding me up. "Maybe you bring me luck," he suggested, as he headed off for a well-earned shower. He can speak for himself.